Is food poverty real and do food banks help?

If you were to talk to people about the big needs in communities and how churches can help, you’ll find that they quite often settle on the assumption that a primary issue is food poverty.  Furthermore, it tends to be assumed that a major solution to food poverty is the existence of foodbanks (alongside things like extending free school meals into the holidays).   I want to just poke at those assumptions a little.

Before I do, I want to get a couple of things out of the way first of all. Whatever you read into this article, please don’t hear me saying that poverty does not exist in the UK or that there aren’t issues with under-nourishment as well as obesity particularly in deprived communities. Over the years I’ve met numerous people who have been struggling with debt, unable to meet the bills and prone to lone sharks. I’ve met people who have been genuinely on the streets without a roof over their head and I’ve met others who have been moving from sofa to sofa or living in hostels and bedsits.  There are various reasons why people end up in such tragic circumstances, some have been wrestling with the immigration system, some have got themselves hooked on drugs and alcohol, others are victims of domestic abuse.  Some have stories that cause you to feel great compassion towards them, others will leave you frustrated and annoyed at their own reckless choices that have got them into a mess.

For a few years we were part of a foodbank as a church eventually we decided to leave for a number of reasons. The first was that we were concerned that the national organisation that coordinated the efforts had become increasingly sucked into party politics. It wasn’t that we all disagreed with the views they expressed but as a church that wasn’t why we had got involved in the project.  Secondly, we struggled with the bureaucracy of it all.  Someone would be told at the local job centre that they might be able to get food vouchers and then sent to us to pick up a voucher. The foodbank was next door to the job centre whilst we were a 30 minute walk away.  So, once they got their voucher they would have to walk back the 30 minutes to the foodbank, assuming it was open that day. 

The third reason was that the system was inflexible. Foodbanks were set up to provide emergency support -usually when someone had lost their job. The idea was that you received 2 r 3 vouchers over a couple of weeks to keep you going until the benefits started coming in.  That was fine for middle class contexts but in an area where people were struggling long term it didn’t solve the problem, in fact it exacerbated it. Fourthly, part of the exacerbation was that it simply lifted those expectations. People realised they could come and get a voucher from a volunteer. We were supposed to interview them as part of the process to check their story but such questioning rarely sheds little light and we weren’t trained or qualified to make an assessment of needs.  However, we had created a transactional relationship. People came to us, picked up a voucher and left.

So, we pulled out of the Foodbank. We resolved instead to keep supplies of emergency food bags at the church building. We also began to proactively look out for those in need within the congregation and the immediate community. This included for example, church members including another family’s needs in their weekly shop.  We also enjoyed shared meals together, a breakfast as part of our 930 service or lunch after the 11:15 -and of course we ate together as part of our Sunday Night Church. 

My observation through all of this was first that food poverty -as many will understand the term is not the issue.  What I mean is that when the term is used, the assumption is that there are lots of people and families who would not be able to eat at all if foodbanks did not exist.  I’m not convinced that this is true in most of the cases that we saw. In time honoured fashion, supply created demand.  There were two reasons for this. First, those in the benefits system knew that they could send people to us so that in effect, the voucher became part of the benefits entitlement. Secondly, what this meant was that the recipients were then able to make a calculation.  They could choose to use the food voucher to acquire the basics and then they could choose to spend any money they had on other things including alcohol, cigarettes, their national lottery ticket, a mobile phone etc.  It wasn’t that they lacked access to food, it is that prioritising food was a choice that required sacrificing other things. We might argue that the problem is not so much food poverty as choice poverty.

Now, just to re-iterate here, I’m not saying that none of the people we met were completely unable to feed themselves just that these were few in number and primarily they were people seeking leave to remain who found that the Government or local authority provision did not come close to making ends meet.  Nor am I saying that there weren’t those for whom the choice was between food and other essentials such as paying the rent, putting money on the electric meter or buying new clothes and shoes for the kids.  Finally, it is also worth remembering that the choice many of us have when it comes to food is between healthy and unhealthy food. 

What I would say is that handing someone a voucher and sending them off to queue for a bag of pasta and tins of spaghetti hoops, soup and tuna isn’t really going to address those issues.  Nor are we fulfilling our responsibilities to one another within the context of being a church family by doing this.

I would encourage churches to stop allowing the consensus solution to drive behaviour. Instead, take time to think about what the actual needs in your congregation and community are. Then take time to consider what your responsibility is when it comes to meeting those needs.

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