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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Those who hunger …

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“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Matthew 5.6)

Last weekend, Sheffield Church Action on Poverty held its eighth annual Pilgrimage. As part of this years event I (as Chair of the group) announced the launch of #EndHungerUK a national three year campaign led by Church Action on Poverty and other national organisations that will try to engage people in discussions around poverty and food, and hopefully build  a consensus of opinion and new policy to move on from the place we find ourselves today.

Let’s remind ourselves of what that place looks like in UK 2016:

“Latest Trussell Trust figures show a 2% increase in foodbank use on the previous year with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by our network of 424 foodbanks in 2015/16.”

Of course this is a fraction of the story – in Sheffield there are at least, around 16-20 emergency food banks and similar services. three of these are members of Trussell Trust. That one million plus figure is therefore a likely tip of the iceberg.

From our own experience, food bank use is varied. It includes all kinds of people with long term mental health and other associated issues, but it also includes short term emergencies like the person who received no payments from DWP whilst working his first month in hand, like those who’ve been on the receiving end of DWP sanctions, those who seen benefits messed up by the likes of Concentrix, and those who are just struggling because all of a sudden they’ve been hit by an on foreseen event.In our case one thing that is both upsetting and alarming is the rise in families requiring help from the food bank service – in our early days (2010-12) we fed very few families and children, in 2014-15 this had risen to around 1 in every 3 people we fed being children (under the age of 18), and this year we’ve seen that rise again to something approaching 46% of those we are now feeding being children.

Now  lets be clear (if a little controversial) the problem here isn’t really one about food. There is of course food a plenty in the UK just as there is across the first world, so much food in fact that we see alongside food banks large amounts of food waste. There are  moral, and economic, arguments around food waste – how its created, what we can do to prevent it, how it could be re-used (even as a basis for feeding people through charitable means). But food waste is not the experience we address in food banks – the issue there is poverty and fairness.

In the world, we experience food in a number of different ways, lets explore a few here to think about their different impacts.

  • Food as Commodity: This is the most common way we all experience food in the world today, and have for centuries. Whether from the local farmer, market or multi national supermarkets, food is bought and sold across the world. Poverty of course restricts your access to these markets, making choices limited, and putting some options out of reach. Food therefore like every other commodity comes at a price, and if that’s one you can’t afford then you’re left out – looking for another option, or go without. It’s one of the major problems with how we see food in the first world, divorced from its production, separated from nature, simply another commodity to be bought and sold.
  • Food as a Reward & Punishment: Of course sometimes food is given (or withheld) by those with power over others, at a basic level it maybe a parent giving a child a treat if they’ve achieved some task or other, or bottles of wine offered as “bonus rewards” for those who efforts are appreciated at work. Even as adults we will use food to help us in certain situations to gain favour, for example by taking a business partner out for lunch. Of course there’s a dark side too – food withheld from those who fail to perform, or who those with power want to punish.
  • Food as Social Bonding. Food has a real place in the forming and keeping of human bonds and relationships. Families traditionally eat together, celebrations often centre around food of some kind or other. Food undoubtedly has a social value beyond simple nutrition.
  • Food as a Gift: Then there is the food given to others as gifts. Once again this may be as treats for those we care about (presents bought and shared out of love) or it may be through, what Christians would associate with “Agape” (charitable love) where the gift is given with no condition or expectation, and ultimately as an expression that all food (and everything else) is a gift from God.

Increasingly, in the case of food banks in particular (and our response to food and poverty in general) these instances have been causing me more and more concern, as I feel the motives and even the practice are becoming modified by the world beyond.

Food donated to and given by food banks is increasingly being turned into, and seen as, a “commodity”. Charity Commission guidance says that all food should be accounted for and reported in the annual report and returns, thus more and more food banks are resorting to weighing in and out food as a way of measuring its commodity (financial) value.

Most food banks (our own included) operate some kind of “voucher” or “referral” system, exactly how these operate vary from place to place and food bank to food bank, there is no common unified system – because food banks are not, have not been designed to be, part of the system – they are a symptom of the system failure. However, the consequence of the voucher / referral system is that access is through a gatekeeper of one kind or another. Referrers might, and do, include: Social Workers, Health Vistors, Housing Associations, Citizens Advice and yes even the DWP themselves – in addition some food banks have reserved the ability to make in house referrals so no one has to leave hungry. The problem is here though, that somehow in this we’ve created a reward and punishment situation where a referrer has the power to make the decision about when someone (and indeed who) needs to be sent to a food bank.

Meanwhile, as I’m watching our volunteers pack another bag of food, serving a coffee and a sandwich, I try to remind myself (and those around me) this is meant to be a gift. An act of love and solidarity to our neighbours in need – it’s not fair, it can’t be fair. So what are the alternatives available – should we shut the doors and leave people to their own devices and a system that’s failed them? Should we allow ourselves as food banks to be co-opted into a new welfare system based on charity, and therefore seek a more equitable system of food distribution by becoming the system? Or do we continue to struggle through the mess of it all, understanding that only campaigning, and a massive change in policy and the way we together provide for the livelihoods of all citizens will resolve this situation in the end?

Meanwhile we’ll be back again next Friday to do our best, to respond with love and grace.