Last year at least 25,000 food parcels were distributed by around 25 food banks which operate in different communities across Lancashire. The numbers have risen rapidly over recent years as economic hardship has hit the region. Unemployment together with low and stagnant wages mean that many families have the choice between eating and heating. Some of the food banks report people who refuse to take items such as pasta because they need to be cooked they may not even have cooking equipment at home, or if they do they can't afford the gas.
The food banks estimate that a quarter of their beneficiaries are working families, on low or unpredictable wages. The rest are living on benefits and divide roughly into three equal groups. One group are getting their payments, but just can no longer manage on the stingy amounts that are paid. Indeed the EU has recently told the UK government that they should double the rates paid to bring claimants up to a reasonable subsistence level. With recent welfare reforms, most have had a cut in their income and increased bills to pay their bedroom tax and council tax, on top of the increasing cost of living. A second group are those who have made a claim, but have had long delays before what they are entitled to comes through to the bank. The third group are made destitute by the deliberate government policy of imposing benefit sanctions a sentence imposed without any legal process by job centre officials, often on flimsy evidence and trivial grounds.
The response to this growing crisis by the food bank movement has been magnificent. Projects have now been set up in every district of the county, mostly led by churches and other faith communities and supported by donations from thousands of the warm hearted and generous people of Lancashire. Most of us realise that there but for the grace of God go I - and respond to human need when we see it. It is the self organising genius which David Cameron until recently called "the Big Society" at work. What a pity then that almost every recent government statement on food poverty and the food bank movement is either evasive or critical.
Indeed as most of the food bank providers recognize there could be a problem of dependency, and it's possible that a few people who have enough money to spend on fags and booze, do get through the referral systems for free food. Yet even,when need is genuine, as in the vast majority of cases, charity on its own can never solve deeper problems and change people's lives.
Thankfully most of the food banks realize this and try to get to know people personally. A listening ear over a cuppa is just the first stage and that can often bring comfort. The next stage is to signpost people to other services and projects that help address other parts of complex problems, housing advice, debt counselling, parenting skills, drug and alcohol services, work clubs. The churches and faith groups in particular are well placed to do this as they are at the heart of a network of such agencies. Additionally when asked they can also offer prayer and spiritual support.
Christians have long seen the church community, and society as a whole, as a single body, in which all persons are members of equal dignity and worth. So action must also go beyond the individual level if we are to end the scourge of food poverty in our county and country. Businesses can help not just my making available their surplus food stuffs to those in need, but by organising themselves to thrive, in order that they can offer decent living wage jobs to those who are unemployed. Communities need to be better organised to be more compassionate, co-operative and resilient in times of austerity. Finally progressive politicians must do better to take a moral lead on these issues, to bring people together, to engage and organize ordinary people in participatory democracy, to lobby, to vote and to campaign so that food poverty and the gross inequality that we now see is driven from our land. As the good book says "without a vision the people perish".