Foodbanks and the politics of salvation

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I am getting increasingly concerned and frustrated by food banks, in Sheffield and elsewhere, that think their work is “apolitical” ….  I’ve even discussed the difference between “apolitical” and non party political on social media sites belonging to such foodbanks and I have had my comments deleted.

Such voluntary silencing of the role of and reasons behind the growing use of food banks and other charity food relief is itself inevitably political. Important voices from the past remind us:

“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is to act” Deitrich Bonhoeffer

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” Desmond Tutu

Foodbanks only exist because of a failure in civic and political policy and the way society supports citizens when we become vulnerable within our society. That vulnerability immediately effects our access to the “marketplace” and the accepted ways of providing for ourselves. In the post war welfare settlement, that vulnerability was mitigated by a system of Social Security payments and services that “cushioned” us in such times.. It provided payments to cover the basic needs, rent rebates, free school meals, home help services, meals on wheels etc. That settlement has been under attack for many years in this country and elsewhere as a new “Neo liberal” approach has been pursued by governments of different shades, and has resulted in a much more individualised, privatised, corporatised and charity based approach. Foodbanks have become a key element within that – and although many of us involved in them have struggled to see what alternatives we have, other than to leave people in need, we have played our part. That is why those of us involved in foodbanks (as well as those who support us with donations and the like) cannot simply remain silent as we pass out an ever increasing number of food parcels, and receive praise for the “good work” we do. Either we speak out about the unacceptable nature of what we are a part of or, by our silence, play a part in allowing it to go unchallenged.

It may be that foodbanks, especially those in large franchises (in the UK the Trussell Trust) stay quiet because of fear of upsetting their donor base, be that the corporate support of the likes of Tesco, Asda and others, or the grant funding from the Lottery and elsewhere. Maybe they feel that the general public would not be as generous  if they challenged the very response they are offering as really no solution at all, or maybe they self censor fearing what they may overstep some Charity Commission ruling on “political” commentary, forgetting that most of this revolves (rightly) around party political partisanship – also (it seems) too easily forgotten when MPs of various parties parade themselves in front of the cameras for publicity shots at nationally co-ordinated food drives in supermarkets up and down the country, Whatever the reasons for any self  imposed “political” silence  the facts remain -the solutions we require to do away with the need for foodbanks will need to be political and require both civic and policy changes – the very stuff of politics.

For many church based foodbanks, I fear that the issue is also tied (conciously or not) to their own theology of salvation. They see people as needing to be “saved” and the Church (and God hopefully at least) as being the means of their salvation, foodbanks too neatly fit this narrative. Foodbanks also allow some churches to feel they are doing “good work” in feeding the “poor” and “needy” – and I’m not belittling the sense of value that is genuinely felt when we help and support others – the important question to keep returning to is what am I actually doing, and why am I doing this. Are my actions in foodbank simply an act of personal and collective generosity in that I love giving away food to people when I can – or am I actually making choices;

  • Who decides who gets the food?
  • Who decides who gets referred and why?
  • What do we ask of those who want / need the food?
  • What price are we exacting? (One man at our foodbank recently said ” .. if I could afford to buy a burger at McDonalds it would cost me 99p – here its supposed to be free but every time I come I’m saying I’m an addict – I can’t cope”)

Lets be clear when Jesus speaks out in Matthews gospel and says:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
– Matthew 25:35-36

Jesus is not talking about foodbanks and charity, he is talking about justice and the full provision expected within the Kingdom of God, personally and collective responsibility to one another.

 

 

 

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“We have failed ….” Reflections on Food Banks & Universal Credit

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This Saturday (20th October 2018) I’ll be leading worship at the start of the annual Pilgrimage organised by Sheffield Church Action on Poverty. As I prepare it’s has reminded me of a previous event organised by the group, and the words I spoke then.

It was a conference held in Sheffield on 30th November 2014, and I spoke about how we as a society would have “failed” if food banks were still with us and were needed in five years time. That date is nearly on us, and presently there are no signs of the need for, and reliance upon food banks lessening, either by the people who use them, or by the state and welfare agencies (who now seem to have them written into their plans and strategies).

The “failure” of food banks now seems both inevitable and clear, even before the deadline I spoke of has been reached.  Now I am called into meetings and briefings about the roll out of Universal Credit in my city of Sheffield; and am told by council staff and others that food banks are part of the infrastructure that will help my neighbours and fellow citizens cope with the new system of welfare. I am asked how might local government and other agencies help support food banks in order that they might better meet the likely increased demand for them following the roll out of Universal Credit (other areas have seen increases of 52% in food bank use following the introduction of the new system).

Lets be clear;  the crisis facing food banks is not one of somehow better ensuring supply meets demand – the problem facing food banks is more fundamental, how do they escape from helping perpetuate a base injustice that is becoming enshrined by the dismantling of the post war consensus around social security, and the return of pre war models of  the “deserving and undeserving poor relief”. Food banks with their “quasi systems” of referrals, and time limits on the like are simply reinforcing the hoop jumping  exercises already faced by people and families on low incomes who rely on the state and other agencies to help maintain a decent standard of life. Austerity is not just a set of political choices made by the current Conservative Government but is also a political culture and tone that has established itself in the aftermath of the global financial crash, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Sadly its is one that despite our talk of solidarity, despite our best intentions, food banks have not overturned, and in fact may have (without ever intending to) in fact helped perpetuate.

Where does this leave us? I don’t now but here’s some thoughts.

I am grateful for those around me who are helping to unpick and challenge what the next steps might be. Politically we need to find new models of community based support that meet the needs of those struggling on low incomes (and temporarily no income) but that do so with dignity, compassion and inclusion, at the same time we need to find ways of going upstream to the heart of the problem. Some politicians are now too happy to avoid the issue of poverty and food bank use by arguing that the issue is “complex” – yes it is and therefore it needs sound public policy responses not simplistic solutions. Poverty comes in many forms and with many complexities:

  • Poverty and poor mental health
  • Poverty and low wages
  • Poverty and disability
  • Poverty and isolation
  • Poverty and debt
  • Poverty and addiction
  • Poverty and deskilling
  • Poverty and ill health

This list of course could go on, which is of course why food banks aren’t the answer – and neither is any simplistic approach like “the best route out of poverty is through work” – but there are people not able to work, or not able to get secure work, or work with a level of decent wages (and I don’t simply mean paying the “national minimum wage”) sadly their are plenty of people working who are still experiencing hardship, and yes even visits to food banks!

But for many of us the problems are not just political but also theological – so much of the food bank response has been through churches and other faith based organisations, we must also challenge ourselves about what we are doing. Yes we are responding to a call (as phrased within my own Christian tradition) to “feed the hungry” and provide for those in need; but lets examine our deeper motivations too. Are we sometimes only too glad to have found a new “centre stage” for our civic presence? Are we sometimes guilty of stepping into “saviour” mode?

Many of us involved in food banks know that we cannot simply continue as we are – we are at something of a crossroads, the next few years will likely see a number of things, and these will set the pattern for our future.

  1. We are likely to see an increase in the “corporatisation” of some food banks. Franchised food banks, securing local (and possibly even central) government funding, national deals with supermarkets (and other companies) and increased pressure for the need for “robust” referral systems to ensure public accountability.
  2. The closure of many smaller, “independent” food banks as they struggle to cope with the increased needs and demands upon them.
  3. The emergence of new models (which will no doubt throw up their own problems and questions) of community support.

I’ll finish this blog reflection with the words I have chosen to start the pilgrimage this Saturday with – they seem fitting for the times we are in:

Today we set off on a journey together; 

a journey of discovery, 

a journey of understanding,                                    

a journey of emotions,                                            

a journey of prayer.

One step at a time,                     

we journey onwards with God.                         

This is pilgrimage.

Changing Seasons

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This weekend saw the Autumn Equinox and at Share Ministries we marked it with an evening of folk music from local friends and an open mic session for others to share songs and poems.

Autumn Equinox (also known within Pagan community as Mabon) is celebrated when day and night are of equal duration before the descent into increasing darkness and is the final festival of the season of harvest. It is also a time to recoginse that the balance of the year has changed, the wheel has turned and summer is now over.

Recognising and marking seasonal change is important, it’s important to do so within the context of creation (the natural world around us) but its also important to do so in our own lives (we are of course also part of that same creation). Seasonal change in our lives can take many forms; we move from childhood to teens  and early adulthood through our middle years and into our old age. But of course other changes of season may also take place; our health may change, relationships come and go, hopefully we learn to love and also inevitably to cope with the loss of people we love. In all these changes in our life seasons God travels with us, offering light even in the dark times, providing us a sense of balance in our lives that holds us firm in good times and bad.

My ministry seems to be in something of a season of change – decisions about new priorities and partnerships are underway, as well as new challenges faced by those I work alongside and those we seek to serve as friends in community. Universal Credit casts a dark shadow over the coming season as the roll out hits Sheffield around November / December this year, its total effects are still of course unknown but the experience of many in places it is already in operation show it has caused more problems than solutions, deepened peoples experiences of poverty rather than lifting them from it. In the past six months alone our food bank service has seen a further 26% growth in those seeking help – if Universal Credit increases these figures we will find it increasing hard to cope with demand in the same way, thankfully our supporters are still generous and we will continue to look for the best ways to exhibit our key values of Love, Hope, Grace and Advocacy despite the increasing challenges.

Our Equinox Blessing

Blessings for the bounty of your Summer harvest.

Blessings for balance in our life as we attune with the power of equal night and day.

Blessings for that which falls away, that which needs to be released with faith and trust into the mystery.

Blessings for gathering and storing the light & warmth of the Summer sun as we head through this transition season towards the dark of Winter when the earth goes to her womb-place and takes that which has fallen away and uses it to create new life that comes in the rebirth of Spring.

May we all harvest well so the light within can carry us through the time of least “outer” light.

 

(Photo by Katie York – Sunshine & Poppies)

This Class Gives

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Apparently people were “queuing round the block” to donate food for a Sheffield food bank in return for a limited edition Peter McKee can ….. Now good people across this country give to food banks including the one I’m involved in at Parson Cross Initiative each and every week with no expectation of reward; I’m glad this stunt is bringing more food, I’m hoping it will prompt debate, I’m worried people will still not question why some are still needing support from food banks in UK 2018.

As a nation we must quickly come to understand the “cost” of allowing the current state of affairs to continue:

  • The “demonisation” of those not working – or indeed those “under employed” to use the latest government jargon
  • The distrust of those claiming disability or sickness benefits, this is true across the board, but is often even more so in relation to “unseen disabilities” and mental health issues
  • The ignorance and assumptions of those who “have” about those who don’t. Allied to this many of us seem to forget that our economic grasp of life is relatively fragile. Only this week we were giving a food parcel to a man who less than 12 months ago had been doing fine employed full time as a driver.

All these attitudes, underpinned of course government policies deliberately designed to create another “hostile environment” around benefits and social security payments, have a cost on all of us. Not simply a financial and economic cost but a moral, and indeed a spiritual one.

We are called to respond – as Christians we are called to respond with love and grace, with an eye on justice and the values of the Kingdom of God so often spoken about by Jesus. As humans we are also called, the cost of excessive inequality, and a lack of compassion leads us towards a kind of barbarism that devalues the humanity of each one of us.

 

A Picture of Jesus

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This week I was set an interesting challenge by Jane who regularly uses our food bank for additional support, she asked me if “This week when you bring the food parcel …. can you bring me a picture of Jesus …. I want to put it over my bed”. 

Obviously my difficulty  wasn’t for shortage of images that could be found, so many can be easily located just by pressing Jesus in the Google image search engine (and of course this is just what my good friend and colleague Charlotte did). The real challenge came in deciding which one to actually choose from the vast array. Of course there’s  been a push back against the western idealised blue eyed, blond Jesus of the past couple of centuries, but even if these were ruled out it would still leave a vast choice not just of ethnogaphic interpretations, but also of style, stance and theological message.

It made me realise just how personal our choice of “Jesus image” is …. it forces us to ask ourselves, “What am I looking for in my chosen image of Jesus”? For me it would be Jesus as liberator of all humanity, the embodiment of a person wholly human, and wholly divine – a human at one with himself and with God – and the one who showed us what the world could be like in the Kingdom of God. 

Of course the many images some up different aspects of the being and nature of Jesus – and create for us a kind of visual shorthand reference for our theological underpinning; his sacred and holy nature, his forgiveness, his love and protection, his sacrificial nature, his guidance as “shepherd”, along with many others.

In the end I decided I couldn’t (and really shouldn’t) be the one to impose my own choice of image on someone else so I printed two or three different images for her to choose from. A cop out? Maybe. Which did she choose? I didn’t feel the need to ask her – she’ll no doubt tell me if she thinks it’s important for me to know. Will it offer her the peace of mind she sought from it? I really hope and pray it does.

 

 

Who uses food banks?

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Today has seen coverage in various media reports of yet another study on food banks and food bank use – there’s little new here, and little that those involved haven’t been saying to Government since at least 2012 – but somehow it falls upon closed ears.

This “new” major study from researchers at Oxford University and King’s College London has tried to get beyond the stereotypes, looking at those using the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.

“In the most basic terms, these are people with many overlapping forms of “destitution”.

They have been missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. One in five had slept rough in recent months.

They are at the lowest end of the low-income spectrum, with an average income below £320 per month, described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”.

These are usually people of working age, middle-aged rather than young or old, mostly living in rented accommodation.

About five out of six are without a job and depending on benefits”. 

(Source BBC News)
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously stumbled early in the election campaign when she seemed to wave off food bank use by describing the reasons people use them as “complex”. Likewise another Tory MP Dominic Raab brought comments when he said that many people use food banks as a response to “cash flow” issues. These responses are deliberately obtuse, or else a callous twisting of the reality of many peoples lives. The precarious nature of many of the poorest incomes do indeed mean that food banks become a lifeline when making harsh financial choices; “Should I put money in the gas meter or buy food?” – “Should I feed my children – or buy the new school shoes I’ve been told to buy to avoid the social worker being called?” Yes these are real comments, yes I’ve heard them directly with my own ears, and if Dominic Raab wants to call that a “cash flow problem”, or Theresa May thinks its all “complex” then I think they need to examine their consciences a little more.
Over the past few weeks our shelves at Pxi-Parson Cross Initiative Projects have been getting more and more depleted, and have required more and more topping up. We’ve spent nearly another £100 this week alone on food in addition to that donated directly.
We are nearing a crisis point – what happens then I genuinely do not know.
 

‘Poverty may be complex, but it is not inevitable’? (Part 2)

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latin-tiles-001-1The other day I featured a guest blog from Jane Perry, a good friend and an independent social research consultant, she was the lead author of Emergency Use Only report (Oxfam et al, 2014). It was, I felt, an important and powerful piece from someone who has a real knowledge of the discussions and debate held close to Government circles. In her piece Jane points to some simple policy choices that could make a genuine difference to many who use food banks in the UK  in 2017 .

I want to add to the discussion with some further thoughts around the existence and role that food banks are now playing in UK, today I’m taking part in a round table event at University of Sheffield, (with friends from UTU – Urban Theology Union, and Sheffield Church Action on Poverty) about Theology & Food Poverty and some of the points raised here will also form part of that discussion.

To start, there is sometimes an assumption by many that food banks and churches simply act out of charity and in response to biblical passages such as (Matthew 35.25), and that this at some level makes us complicit in wanting, or needing poverty and food insecurity to continue in order to serve our own desires to “help the poor”. Now clearly charity, and the desire to help alleviate the dire situations many people find themselves in, is part of the motivation, and for some I guess it may not go any deeper, however from my own experience in North Sheffield this has not been our sole approach or intention. We’ve tried to operate much more along a basis of standing in solidarity with our neighbours in need; of listening to and learning from the life experiences we encounter, and importantly being open to being challenged and changed ourselves by the things we share.

As Christians, we should attempt to hold a picture of the food shared through food banks as moving us nearer to an act framed by the Eucharist feast rather than simply an offering of  charity and alms to the poor – food not as a commodity to be bought or earned, but as a gift from God to be shared. Of course that’s not easy,  those of us who operate food banks cannot simply ignore the power (and authority) that roles gives us over others, but we can choose how we hold that power. We can either assume the mantle of serving in some less formalised extension of the welfare system (filled with rules and entitlements), or we can seek to place ourselves, to some degree at least, “at odds” with the system. Some food banks limit the number of referrals any family can have at any time, (often three times in a given period) – we’ve never imposed such a limit, we’ve always said we are willing to offer support, “For as long as the need is there….” still our statistics show that despite this most people rarely come more than 3-4 weeks without a break. For the record, we’ve never (since opening the doors in 2010) turned anyone who has turned up at a food bank session away without food regardless of referral vouchers or the like. Crises, and for most people food banks are still a place to go only when facing a crisis, don’t always stop after three visits (or three weeks) sometimes they can drag on for months. When someone came to us recently and said “I’ve been told by housing they won’t give me another referral because I’ve had my three ….” our response was, “Well here’s some food for this week, go back and tell housing there’s no set limit to how many times they refer you”, and of course we’ve gone back to referrers too and told them the same. We aren’t asking referrers to limit access, simply to assess need, and hopefully to use food bank as a support until they can find a solution.

So why bother with referrals at all you might ask, and it’s a good question. Partly it’s about rationing and managing the food we are given (and also therefore a fear on our part we could not cope adequately with an unrestricted demand), in part it’s about an accountability to those who donate (yes we can say that people coming are genuine and have a defined need), it’s also about making sure support is being given for some of those more “complex” underpinning issues. Knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, food banks operate effectively as a sub-currency, where inadequate incomes are subsidised through food. At their best food banks are turning commodities into gifts and transforming bureaucratic referrals into genuine mutual relationships, where personal complexities can be more fully understood and supported.

There is one big problem with food banks – the problem of normalisation. Increasingly food bank collection points can be found in more and more supermarkets, where shoppers simply add to the stores sales by buying extra to drop in the box. What does this cost the shop? Nothing – in fact it merely adds to the sales figures, and helps tick the corporate responsibility box. Don’t get me wrong those of us running food banks are grateful for every item bought and donated, but the problem is that its all becoming “normal”. We’d hoped that food banks were a temporary phenomenon, it appears they may not be!

In our food bank alone last year we gave out over 2000 food parcels, shocking around 42% of these were for children under 18. Approximately 41% were given out as a result of benefit issues (usually delays or sanctions), and another 38% because of “low income”. The hardship people are facing is real, and it’s long term; I leave the last words to one man who came to our food bank last Friday, he said:  “People are desperate so they need help. ….. I have had no gas since November because of debt. If you have no money you can’t afford to pay for utility bills”  #FoodBankVoices