In recent years, so-called foodbanks, which distribute donated food to those in need, have sprung up in Cambridge and across Britain. Half a million people are expected to be using them by 2015. Their main organizer, the Trussell Trust, has been widely praised by politicians and the press, and will soon receive grants from many local authorities.
So why does it make my skin crawl? Because it reeks of the parish poor relief of the Middle Ages, the squalor and smug philanthropy of the Victorians, and the millions tasting Tory austerity in the soup-kitchens of the 1930s. No-one in 21st-century Britain should be lining up for charity handouts to meet their most basic of needs.
You may see foodbanks as a practical way of solving food poverty, or a laudable example of ‘Big Society’ in action. As national and local governments enforce the deepest austerity for a generation, this is exactly what they would like us to believe.
Foodbanks insidiously erode the fundamental principles of modern society: our collective responsibility to support each other by ensuring jobs, income, services and a social security net that protect us from misery. They mark a dangerous regression from food-as-right to food-as-charity. The shift strips those in need of their standing as equal citizens. Responsibility for survival itself is flung out to charity volunteers, who solicit passers-by at supermarkets on their behalf. The poor become beggars-once-removed, to whom we have no obligation beyond token gifts of pity-pasta.
As the Guardian asked, who likes their groceries served with pity? No amount of cake and chit-chat at foodbanks can stop it being ‘ultimately a humiliating and degrading experience’ for clients, as researcher Hannah Lambie reported following interviews in Coventry.
Whatever happened to the Conservative mantra, a ‘hand up, not a handout’? Foodbanks frame inadequate food as the problem, and a problem solved. They stop us thinking about and tackling the causes of poverty itself, from pathetic wages to mass unemployment to a ‘safety net’ ridden with holes. These are the reasons even working families are queuing for food boxes in ever-greater numbers. By alleviating the clearest symptom and ignoring the sickness, foodbanks give politicians the all-too-easy excuse to look the other way.
Imagine the outcry if it was the sick who had been left with no choice but to queue for voluntary sector ‘health banks’. Foodbanks are already normalizing poverty in Britain, much as we have normalized homelessness on our streets. Poverty risks becoming a sad fact of life, not a scandal demanding change. Thirty-seven million people receive food aid unnoticed in the US today – we have to kill our own cancer now and at its root.
Foodbanks also fall short in what limited relief they offer. Clients’ dinners are chosen for them, and chosen over key non-food items like water or heating. Patronising and occasionally unhelpful, it is also unreliable on at least three counts.
One, the whole operation – finances, food stock and staff – both hinges on and fluctuates with the whims of donors and volunteers. ‘A lot want to help out, but a lot do it for a while and disappear,’ admitted one Cambridge volunteer. Two, the ever-increasing number of agencies distributing food vouchers to potential clients make demand unpredictable. Foodbanks thus risk being overwhelmed and having to turn people away, as in Coventry in 2011. Finally, maintaining quality is difficult in a decentralized, church-led network of volunteers.
Many of these problems could be solved through a more professional and joined-up national system. But the Trussell Trust can’t do this. Their aim is to help local, Christian communities relieve hunger, not relieving hunger per se – an important difference. It is precisely the localized model that allows and inspires so many Christian volunteers to live out their social mission.
Of course, we should not let people starve. I’ve seen the Cambridge foodbank’s admirable work alleviating hunger in our city. But as a societal response to poverty, foodbanks are fundamentally unjust, undignified, unreliable and ultimately ineffective. By all means help your local foodbank, but recognize it as a necessary evil, and refuse to accept the evil that makes it necessary. Poverty is a national disgrace that demands political change, not charitable pity.
Tom Belger is a student in Cambridge. He has written for various student papers, for spiked magazine and for the Huffington Post.