Food poverty is about power and powerlessness. Professor Liz Dowler calls for justice as well as charity.
Food banks are, it seems, everywhere: in the media, in political debate, in (nearly) every town and city and, most importantly perhaps, in people’s lives. I want to reflect here on why they have become a touchstone for so many urgent discussions about what is happening in the UK and more widely today.
Charitable ‘food aid’ has a long history, everywhere, and for Christians, seems to fulfil Jesus’ injunctions to ensure those who are poor are fed. Continual public generosity to those in need or less fortunate is an important reaction to neoliberalism and the drive to make people ‘stand on their own two feet’ and take responsibility (in both senses) for their lives.
Nevertheless, the consistent biblical message is not only to ‘feed the hungry’; it is to understand and address why people are hungry.
Some argue that food inequalities and injustice are at the heart of our contemporary food system, which increasingly enables more people to be fed, more safely, than ever before. But gain from the benefits of technological change to increase food productivity is not even, and some say these technologies contribute to undermining household food security for poorer people everywhere.
In richer countries like the UK, not only producers but also those who work elsewhere in the food sector are often poorly paid, on zero-hours contracts and non-unionised. One of the challenges facing the food system is how to produce, process, transport and market food more sustainably (in environmental and social terms) while ‘internalising the externalised costs’ – or, in other words, ending the era of food which is, to us in rich countries, relatively cheap because the real costs of the food are borne by people and environments elsewhere.
Isn’t this a bit far from food banks? Well, no, for at least two reasons. One is that, the only way retailers and others can try to keep food prices down (and most big supermarkets compete on low price) is by causing more problems to those who work in the food sector, here and elsewhere – and this compounds the problems of low wages and unstable jobs. Low wages and job instabilities are contributing to rising numbers having to use food banks. Another reason is that food prices are not likely to get lower in the near future, even without effort to take on ‘externalised’ costs, because the food sector is so dependent on oil, and will become increasingly dependent on fresh water, and neither of these will get any cheaper. Increased food and fuel costs are contributing to rising numbers having to use food banks.
On top of all these longer-running problems have come recent government austerity measures in the wake of the banking crisis. For many households, these mean having to work shorter hours for less pay (as businesses try to avoid making people redundant) or loss of part-time jobs (particularly in the public sector, where many losing their jobs are women, who also bear much responsibility for feeding the household). Cuts have also led to less local-level support for child and elder care, networking or emergency loans. Increasing numbers are finding themselves unable to pay their bills, however much they try to cut back, sell belongings, or go without. People often cut back severely on what they spend on food (Defra’s national data shows this, as do many smaller surveys and sources). Contrary to some press or online comments, most people in such circumstances budget tightly and live frugally.
Reducing what you spend on food, getting by on toast or crackers, doesn’t bring the bailiff to your door or cause your gas or electricity to be cut off (though you can’t cook without them). But eating inadequately for health does affect your mental and physical wellbeing, both short- and long-term.
There have been local-level food initiatives trying to improve poorer people’s lives and circumstances for many years and these can be very empowering – especially locally run food co-operatives – but they are mostly not geared to the crises and emergencies now facing many households. People are turning to food banks, sometimes to tide them over an immediate problem, but more often, as a last resort, with need for systematic, real help. While many churches are enthusiastic in embracing setting up and sustaining food banks (which in themselves are quite demanding on time, energy and other resources) as relief, many fewer are able, or even willing to consider how, to tackle the root causes and structural problems of rising costs of living, low income or benefit changes.
Need this remain the case? The Chester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank recently held a local Question Time event which is an example of one alternative approach. This is surely important action: to challenge those in authority, with power to do something about it, that changes which are happening covertly should not be done ‘in our name’.
There are other potential actions: for instance, becoming a McKenzie friend to support those facing court action, or, for those with legal training, to help with benefit advocacy. Everyone can write to their local and national newspapers and work to counter the stereotypes being perpetuated by many in the media and some in government. A recent national survey by Manchester’s Citizens Advice Bureau of the effects of welfare benefit sanctions is useful to set against continual government assertions that rising usage of food banks is not connected to changes in social security levels, entitlement or practice. These public arguments matter, because governments are sensitive to voters’ views of poverty and state responsibilities, and sometimes seem to respond to voter demands (well, on some issues!).
Food banks are increasingly being used, both by people in desperate need and by concerned citizens wanting to help, to deal with immediate problems. Where these things are done well they reflect Jesus’ approach, which was towards hospitality and dignity, rather than minimalism or shame. I don’t want to make the good (supporting food banks) the enemy of the best (challenging the reasons to need them). But I also know that while many are citing the rising numbers using them as a marker for social crises, some in government increasingly deny their legitimacy in representing a reality. This has to be challenged, although it is a complex argument to make, especially given the lack of monitoring at national levels (although several local authorities are looking to tackle food poverty, including the London Assembly). This is something we can all take on.
Liz Dowler is a professor at the University of Warwick with expertise in poverty and the social and policy aspects of food and nutrition. A longer version of this article first appeared in Coracle, the magazine of the Iona Community. It is reprinted here by kind permission.
Church Action on Poverty is supporting an Independent National Inquiry into Food Poverty and Hunger, giving food banks an opportunity to speak out about injustice as well as meeting immediate need. Click here to find out how you can support the Inquiry.