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Fancy nosh and raising dosh

cup cake

Daniel Lee under a Creative Commons Licence

Food has always been a powerful resource when raising money. After all, who can resist a sparkly cupcake, or turn down the offer of a freshly baked scone?

In the past, it has also played a part in slightly more offbeat ideas. Granted, a bathtub of beans is pretty boring now, but I bet for a few years it had a big impact. Even coconuts are traditionally involved, despite their shyness.

Now though, as the world becomes increasingly aware of food and all it encompasses –perhaps the word is obsession (I know it applies to me) – it seems the primary vehicle when fundraising. Jumping out of planes, climbing up mountains – these pursuits are admirable indeed, but today nothing seems to present more clearly a token of good will than fanciful cuisine.  

There are now so many considerations for people when pondering what goes on the table. From air miles to sustainability and whether sugar is Fairtrade – food has been about more than simply eating for a long while. It’s a complete lifestyle choice and, as a result, the charity sector is seeing a greater effect.

Moreover, with hunger often a central point of focus when trying to better the world, it seems credible, practical and weirdly nourishing to try to relate in some way. An obvious example is global initiative Live Below the Line, which I documented in more detail here. It allows a degree of understanding, if somewhat diminutive. Importantly, though, at its heart is food and drink, channelling a digestible and tangible way to help provide.

And more traditional setups have had a makeover, too. The basic premise of ‘tea and cake’, which in days gone by featured fold-out tables on village greens, bunting and aprons, all to raise money for run-down church halls, has been amplified.

Take the MacMillan Coffee Morning – it’s a nationwide affair in Britain. People tweet their offerings, document their experiences. Great swathes of caffeine-fuelled bean lovers and bakers raise not just a pot of cash to buy a new bike shed, but contribute to a worldwide issue, a monumental cause. I’m not saying smaller, intimate events aren’t wonderful, by the way – it’s just such larger-scale events usually prompted an idea of bungee jumping or running 200 kilometres. Now, for many, such endeavours have been replaced with more crumpet-based principles.

Another notable happening is the Big Chocolate Tea Party, where during April many pitched in to support The Sick Children’s Trust. It had well-known endorsement from the likes of master chocolatier Paul A Young.

Last year, thousands of people got involved and over £27,000 ($45,000) was raised. This year was expected to collect even more. All by way of a cup of tea and a a slice of Aztec Wonder cake. It’s impressive.

Of course, there’s the more evocative, if even sadder, side of why food seems to hold a greater influence. Escalating food poverty in the Western world is at the forefront of our minds. It’s an issue increasingly hard to ignore or see only on television screens.

It is known to many that food banks are busying the very church halls where happy cake sales used to proudly toast the new bench, or the updated climbing frame. It’s a resounding point of focus.

While trying to feed more has always been a resolve for many, it’s clearly ludicrous that in rich countries such as the US and Britain, people are suffering hunger to a greater extent. The fact that, due to political reasons, operations that would have perhaps worked to support vital projects overseas, or to other developments here, have been given a dose of home-tied desperation.

There’ll always be people running marathons and cycling the length and breadth of countries. Today, though, in both positive and depressing ways, food is inescapable in every section of our lives. We’re trying to be ethical, making sure we buy local; we’re also incorporating this preoccupation more and more into our philanthropy. What’s on our plates, it seems, is reflective of society in many ways.   

Limiting beyond belief: the cost of living below the line

Illustration of meals

Illustrator Lottie Stoddart kept a visual record of the meals she ate during her week living below the line. © Lottie Stoddart

Friday was my last day ‘living below the line’ – a challenge to live for five days on just £1 ($1.70) a day, to raise awareness of the 1.2 billion people around the world who live in extreme poverty. I started the challenge on Monday, so by the end of the week I was looking forward to no longer having to suffer inordinate amounts of starch, peppered with watery, frozen vegetables and limp, tasteless – almost certainly unethical – fillets of ‘value’ white fish (I’m sorry, I couldn’t keep to sustainability principles when hunger reigned).  

For nearly a million people in Britain, however, such poor sustenance is seemingly perpetual. And for far more across the world, such a shopping list would be welcomed with open arms.

Walking around supermarkets with just 5 pounds to spend for 5 days’ worth of food was more than a test of my culinary prowess. It was a test of character, a discipline that had to be learned to ensure I didn’t keel over.

Unlike some, I look forward to shopping – so much so that I do it nearly every day, at least to top up on bits and pieces. I enjoy looking out for asparagus, which is arriving on shelves just now; picking out some juicy-looking plums, then scampering off to the cereal aisle to get some oats after deciding they would go superbly in a crumble.

Having just a fiver is limiting beyond belief. There might be an allowance for oats, but plums are entirely off limits. A substantial amount of fresh, seasonal vegetables would likely take up around half that sum.

Here is what I bought: 6 value fish fillets, £1.62; 1 kilogram frozen vegetables, 75p; basics white rice, 40p; 6 eggs, £1.00; 500g savers pasta, 29p; 3 tins of savers kidney beans, 69p; and 2 dodgy apples, 24p.

It all came to £4.99 – a worrying basket of white plastic and beige.

This financial restriction and resourcefulness is what a growing number of people have to face here every day. The figure for many living in communities in sub-Saharan Africa meanwhile, would be an empowering lifeline.  

We cannot begin to fathom such ongoing hunger and suffering – certainly not by imposing a self-inflicted period of 23p cans of kidney beans. But Live Below the Line at least helps to amplify awareness of poverty and maybe give the privileged a pea-sized taste of the difficulties. Above all, it raises vital funds.  

This week I’ve felt depression, fatigue and a lack of nutrition – no nourishment of any kind. I craved a glass of wine, fresh fruit, and a handful of almonds. Something with actual flavour.  

Lottie Stoddart, who wonderfully illustrated her week, felt the same. She told me: ‘It was not just a hungry week, but one completely lacking in choice or flavour. I’d never realized how much of an effect it would have on my mood, which grew dramatically worse through the week, affecting my drive and my drawing.

‘The challenge certainly gave me a small insight into what it means to be below the poverty line.’

But as 12am on Saturday morning hit, I found myself in a cocktail bar, sipping a Hemingway Daiquirí before munching something quite ridiculous bought from a kebab van. Since then, I’ve gone back to making sure my fish is ethically sourced. I’ve had more than my fair share of assorted nuts. I’m thankful I have a choice. Millions don’t.

Recipes

A lot of people came up with ways to try to get some semblance of taste and substance to their dishes this week. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I had rice for breakfast, pasta and kidney beans for lunch, and more rice for dinner, with some frozen vegetables and either eggs or fish. And on two of the days I had a small, bruised apple. I wished I had bought the own-brand 15p rice pudding. I needed pudding.

I’m supporting the wonderful Action Against Hunger – you can still donate here

Food and politics don’t mix

BNP in action

Is there such a thing as a selfless good deed when promoting a political party at the same time? bnp.org.uk under a Creative Commons Licence

Food has been increasingly politicized over recent times – and no more so than by food banks.

The country’s most prominent provider, The Trussell Trust, announced that well over 600,000 adults and children required handouts in the first 9 months of 2013/14 – the biggest-ever rise in usage, up 170 per cent. It’s a startling statistic.

But while vulnerable people and a growing reliance on charity is a worrying development, more politicians appear to be wading in to comment; championing beliefs as a result of the initiatives, or combating opponents with differing figures.

On Tuesday, a cross-party inquiry into food poverty was launched to examine the country’s ‘underlying issues’. The prospectively pragmatic approach cannot come soon enough. Jon Glenn, Conservative MP for Salisbury, said at the time: ‘Partisan politics needs to be taken out of the debate.’

But while the need for food banks stems from economic policy founded on political ideals – undeniably fuelling debate and dispute – the physical act of donation and provision has largely been left to kindly members of communities. Churches, resident-led teams and larger organizations have all stepped up.

The British National Party (BNP), however, has ignored this basic premise. This week The Independent reported that the far-right group has begun a nationwide door-to-door service, expanding a localized scheme in East London which was condemned by some observers as ‘manipulative’.

Unite Against Fascism’s Weyman Bennett says the move is not dissimilar to Adolf Hitler’s soup kitchens, or the work of Greece’s fascist party Golden Dawn.

He told The Independent: ‘I think [the BNP] are repeating those methods with this period of austerity. There is a danger with austerity that people get exploited and used.’ He added that the work would encourage ‘the homeless and the desperate to support a rotten organization’.

Indeed, ‘giving’ has often been a telling sign of propaganda – to appeal to potential voters; to nurture some semblance of positivity in times of hardship.

But BNP spokesperson Simon Darby responded by talking about people ‘struggling’. He played down the speculation, while mentioning the scheme as an expression of ‘sympathy’. Puzzling, then, that he went on to say that the project was a way of gaining ‘trust’ and ‘bringing meaning to politics’.

As many question the motives behind he scheme, BNP leader Nick Griffin went as far as to proclaim that his party’s mobile food banks were for ‘indigenous’ people only.

Over the last few years, the BNP has used the country’s concerns for welfare and widening inequality to step into the spotlight. Communities driven to the fringes by austerity are Nick Griffin’s target.

Yet dishing out tinned goods in exchange for a tick on a voting slip is more than politically questionable; it also undermines those who are working to tackle food poverty without hoping to gain an advantage from such altruism. The Sufra food bank, for example, is a Muslim collective run from a small community centre on a northwest London housing state. It has doubled in size since forming late last year and, although founded on a religious backbone, has been ‘offering support to anyone in need’.

A British-Gambian recycling project makes great strides

Prosthetic limb

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under a Creative Commons Licence

Tom Williams jokingly refers to his group as ‘glorified dustbin men’, a title coined since his purely recreational, if notably adventurous jaunt to The Gambia sparked a collection of over 200 prosthetic limbs.

I suppose it’s fair to say that driving over 6,000 kilometres from Leicestershire, England, to the west coast of Africa with a batch of recycled artificial body parts renders the sentiment. This is the plan for two friends involved in Tom’s project and the next step for Legs4Africa, founded after a chance encounter with a ‘beautiful family’ while on an expedition there in 2010.

Tom and a friend met amputee Paul, his wife and children and saw the impact the circumstance had. It’s the ‘emotional as well as the physical trauma of the disability,’ explains Tom. The Gambia is a country with limited healthcare; needless to say, securing an artificial limb is difficult – and expensive.

He was inspired to do something good with his spontaneously insightful trip, found a prosthetics expert in Portsmouth and had a leg made. He flew it out to Paul. ‘It brought about a feeling like no other,’ Tom described.

‘I went up and knocked on their door. I was just holding this leg – it was quite an experience; a truly amazing moment.’

Tom came back thinking that was it – but learned the maker, Karl Ives, had 18 more. It seemed there was something further that could be done.

Tom talks of those who are ‘immobile’ and have little hope of receiving an artificial limb, while noting that around 2,000 used prosthetic limbs are destroyed in Britain every year.  Once they’ve been built and worn here they can’t be reused under EU regulation. Redundant and forgotten, these limbs have the power to change lives thousands of kilometres away.

Since that realization, Tom has forged a partnership with the Disability and Social Welfare department at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul, the country’s capital. All the limbs sent out will be ‘fully disinfected, tagged, tracked and distributed freely’ through a fair waiting list – and it is through the link with an official body in The Gambia that the work can evolve safely.

‘These legs give people renewed independence,’ Tom told me. ‘They help the unemployed get back into work; parents raise children; improve quality of life.’

Tom’s initial journey, which he admits now was as much metaphorical as it was physical, has developed into an international foray into the world of charity and medical aid. A photographer by trade, he had no knowledge whatsoever of prosthetics or amputations – a typically limited British understanding of the plight of many in poorer communities. Now he hopes to see Legs4Africa grow and the utilization of our dispensable resources amplified.

Of course, it costs. So a crowdfunder campaign, ‘Leg it to Africa’, was started, and has now nearly halfway to its $9,000 target. The money is set to fund the next – and first major – journey in April, while also going towards a documentary to highlight the work, planned by yet more friends willing to get involved and champion the cause.