21 September 2015, The Tablet

Foodbanks remain a candle in the darkness despite scaremongering

by Fr Tim Byron

Fr Tim Byron SJ discusses recent reports in the national press that foodbanks are being used by drug addicts to feed their habits...

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

A phrase that is often attributed to John F Kennedy but possibly made more famous by another Catholic, the lawyer Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International, through whose letter campaigns many lights were brought into the dark and isolated cells of prisoners of conscience.

Foodbank Britain has also exposed the isolation and desperate darkness of tens of thousands who find themselves in crisis, being forced to make tough decisions every day.

As the welfare state is rolled back, it has exposed a lack of resilience in many struggling to cope.  The shock absorbers of a bygone age, the extended family, are not there anymore. Where do I turn when I am in crisis?  As my elderly father deteriorates, needing full-time care, who supports me as I give up my part time job?

The Christian Charity the Trussell Trust has created a model which restores hope, signposts people out of crisis, shows them the way out of dependency. It is a model that has been franchised out in church halls, cafes and parish rooms all over the country.  

Thousands of people are referred to their foodbanks day in - day out all over the country.

They are not drop-in centres but are supported by hundreds of referral agencies, front-line workers ranging from teachers to housing associations, probation officers to womens’ shelters. Our student chaplaincy in Manchester has 160 such referral agencies, holders of our vouchers, and we trust them to make professional assessments - so that when a client swallows their pride and crosses the threshold of our foodbank clutching a voucher, we know that 99 out of a hundred times they have assessed a genuine need and recognised an authentic crisis.

Of course, the occasional one slips through the net. But rather than risk turning away someone in genuine need we continue to feed them all.  Who else is going to help?

A couple of weeks ago the working day of two different people started.  

Paul is an officer for Greater Manchester Police,  Ian is a journalist for the Mail on Sunday. Two hours before his shift began Paul came to our foodbank to collect a parcel for a family that was in crisis.  He wasn’t in uniform or a squad car because he didn’t want to attract attention or alarm the neighbours as he dropped off the vital food parcel.  

I bumped into him and chatted to him. Perhaps the food prevented an adolescent girl running away from home and being at the mercy of the men of the street, We don’t know.  

Meanwhile, Ian ran a expose on how drug addicts were selling on foodbank food to continue their habit.  People read his story, later reprinted by The Times and harrumphed about scroungers into their cornflakes.  However, maybe the misused food parcel meant the addicts hadn’t mugged a frail pensioner, we don’t know.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Fr Tim Byron SJ is chaplain to the Universities of Manchester, and priest at the Holy Name Church, Manchester, and helps organise the Manchester Central Foodbank, which is the first student-run foodbank in the UK.

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