There are signs of further expansion and funding programmes that suggest food bank provision is becoming a major and possibly permanent feature of the welfare safety net. Big Lottery is funding expansion in Scotland. over a five year programme. Local authorities have formed or are negotiating partnerships with food banks. Blackpool Food Partnership is a partnership consisting of local churches, community groups, charities and individuals and works with and is funded through Blackpool Council's Discretionary Support Scheme. Lancashire County Council's Care and urgent needs support scheme is currently inviting local food banks to apply for funding.
A parliamentary all party group on Hunger and Food Poverty, headed by Frank Field MP and the Bishop of Truro announced in February 2014 that it was commissioning a Parliamentary Inquiry into hunger and food poverty in Britain. You can follow the work of the Inquiry by visiting www.foodpovertyinquiry.org. Earlier in September 2013, Frank had written to the Prime Minister expressing his concern that food banks were becoming "an institutional part of our welfare state" Food banks have become a hot and controversial political issue which implicitly receive government praise as evidence of the Big Society in action, at the same time as being lambasted by the DWP when they have made the link with welfare reform and benefit sanctions. More outrageously, but in the end counter-productively the Mail on Sunday tried to rubbish their work with an agent provocateur reporter
This week Together Lancashire called together people working in local church linked food-banks to review their current work and shape a co-ordinated submission of evidence to the Parliamentary Enquiry. Numerous common experiences and concerns were shared but these were the most prominent:
anger at the scandal of food poverty and the large number of referrals that arise from harsh decisions or administrative delays over benefits
a general reluctance especially from the smaller local, and church supported food-banks to enter into a contractual relationship with local authority benefit schemes.
A shared desire to offer a person centred, relationship based holistic service to people in need, that would begin at least to address the underlying, economic, social, educational, health and spiritual needs of the people they served.
A strong desire to work themselves out of a job to see the closure of food banks rather than the opening of new ones.
So in an ideal or at least a better society how might arrangements to address persistent food (and other aspects of poverty be configured and what role could churches and Christian organisations most usefully play? The ideas that follow are my personal reflections following this group discussion but come out of several years experience of working in development and support of food-banks across Lancashire
The State and Food Banks
Despite all the protests and denials coming out of Whitehall it is clear to me that central government bears much of the responsibility for the growth of food poverty and the increasing role of food banks in the thankless task of repairing the welfare safety net. This is not a party political point, for inequality was growing and food poverty was emerging under the previous government and the Labour Party shows little enthusiasm for restoring benefits to decent levels or abolishing the sanctions regime which penalises those with least ability to support themselves by their labours. The media assault on the undeserving poor, often orchestrated by government with an eye to electoral advantage, through pandering to the perceptions of those who are striving if struggling, is an unfortunate backdrop that prevents a restoration of a generous regime of support for people in poverty. There seems little real hope in the near to medium term of better economic prospects for the poor (or indeed the majority of us) let alone radical policies such as income redistribution, progressive taxation, and a basic income guarantee that might abolish food poverty in the UK. Since as Keynes once said, "in the long term we are all dead" and even his medium term policies are out of favour, it is likely that direct food aid to the destitute, through charitable food banks or some food voucher scheme is likely to be in place for many years.
Local Government and Food Aid
Since April 2014 local government has been given responsibility for the allocation and distribution of emergency welfare payments which were formerly processed by the DWP as crisis loans and community care grants. However, there are strict budget limits, and it seems likely that the funding for this will end in 2015. Different Councils have set up various schemes, which were often designed in haste, and prone to administrative problems and low take-up because of poor publicity, complex application procedures and a presumption among officials to be sceptical about the accounts of applicants. A reluctance to dispense cash has meant that in kind help such as vouchers for food, fuel and furniture are often preferred. Charitable food-banks, usually managed by churches have often been approached as partners or suppliers.
Some authorities such as Blackpool have made a genuine effort to work in partnership with a broad range of charities, have funded them generously and developed schemes aimed at ensuring that recipients of food aid are encouraged, even required, to engage with other statutory or voluntary agencies, through which there is a decent chance that underlying problems can be addressed. There is a genuine attempt to explore working together for the common good in which charities and churches can decide to play a valuable part, and holistic person centred approaches can be offered. . Even here there can be administrative and practical issues that prevent help getting to the neediest people in good time, and there appears to be a residual demand that only churches and charities seem willing to meet, among people whose lives are too chaotic to engage with officialdom, or who have found that they are not eligible for publicly funded support.
Other schemes such as Lancashire's seem more problematic, and sometimes produce a postcode lottery in different districts within the two tier authority. In 2013-14 there was some provision for cash payments, but low take-up led to significant underspend. Now in 2014 food banks around the county have been invited to tender to deliver specified parcels of shopping to eligible households at a rate of £26 per parcel.. Most of the charitable food-banks in our network simply do not have the capacity to expand their services, or the logistics to do home deliveries, or the administrative backup to deal with monitoring or other paperwork, and mostly prefer to operate according to their own ethos and policies. If the Council is unwilling to give people money and the dignity of being able to choose how to spend it, and the contract is simply to supply and deliver packs of groceries why does the Council not give the contract to Tesco, Asda, Iceland or even Ocado. The supermarkets have the supplies, the delivery vans and ordering and monitoring software to make the process cost effective. The option of a voucher system where beneficiaries could opt to collect and select, with minimal stigma at the supermarket checkout, could also be useful. Churches and charities mostly have more valuable things they could be attempting with the time and resources they have at their disposal.
How Churches can Tackle Food Poverty?
Christians, and many others who share values of decency and humanity, will always be moved towards generosity when they see people in dire need, and will wish to share (at least) their surplus with those who have little or nothing to eat. While there remains an adequate and relatively cheap food (over)supply in our communities, sandwiches or meals or bags of groceries will be given away in church halls, at vicarage doors or in the streets to people who are in evident need and are not too proud to ask. These actions of grace, which tend to err on the side of generosity rather than establishing genuine need, ("for through hospitality some have entertained angels unawares") do not need to be organised into a formal food-bank service. If in recent years they have been, it has been from fear that we will be overwhelmed by the extent of need, an outrage that something has to be done about the scandal of destitution, a sense that the service needs to be properly managed and regulated, and often because we feel good in ourselves that we have put our faith into action.
However, a few moments of reflection with some mining of theological and Biblical resources will suggest that we can do better than food banks in building a distinctively Christian ethos in our responses to food poverty. Five key values would be
person centred listening and engagement
offering holistic approaches
long term sustainable community development (rather than instant charitable aid)
The implication of the first two is that Christian food ministries should move away from the ethos of the food depot or shop, towards that of the banqueting table. At the very least we should have simple cafe facilities, with at the least a brew and a butty available to all, and with volunteers with the time and listening skills to explore people's life situations and feelings about them. Holistic approaches mean that concerns with money, with housing, with family and relationships, with benefits, with employment or the lack of it, with health and with spirituality can also come to the table. Underlying issues can thus be identified and begin to be addressed. There can be a place for prayer and worship, as long as it is facilitated via open explorations rather than presented as a pre-packaged gospel demand. Collaborative working means that volunteers need to be well informed about local services, and trained to offer appropriate signposting or advocacy. Community development means a commitment to empowerment of individuals, working in groups and in relationships of mutuality with other people, helping them to identify issues and test out ways of tackling them. Some of this might translate into businesses and social enterprises, local food production schemes, co-operatives, or discount shops such as Goldthorpe Community Shop offering cheap nutritious food sourced from surplus supplies through schemes such as Fareshare
The best Christian and community food banks already are seeking to apply these principles the rest should be thinking hard about how they can implement them. Our churches should forget about the role the government would like them to take up the replacement of a society which shares its burdens and risks with some degree of equity and justice by a charitable welfare safety net with gaping holes that will only be plugged by our generosity and goodwill.