Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Friday 29 July 2016

Book review --- Hunger Pains: Life inside Foodbank Britain

Hunger Pains: Life inside Foodbank Britain
By Kayleigh Garthwaite
Policy Press, 176pp, £14.99 and £9.99
ISBN 9781447329114 and 9138 (e-book)
Published 14 June 2016



This is a worthwhile book from an academic who writes in a simple accessible style. It is the result of a health inequality study during which the writer was a long-term volunteer in a food bank in the North East of England . She has done a good job of serving alongside the people who run and listening to the people who use local food bank, and has set out her findings in the context of wider social policy research.


However, those of us who have been involved at any depth in the issues of food poverty or are familiar with the work of the many food banks across the country will learn little that is new. But it is a good book to recommend to people who have little awareness or who are sceptical about the reality of food poverty in Britain today. It gives a sound basic introduction to the statistics on food poverty, although it perhaps relies too heavily on information supplied by the Trussell Trust. While Tussell is the largest coordinated chain of banks in Britain with over 400 branches, and the one with the best monitoring and publicity machine, they account for perhaps only a quareter of the food poverty projects overall. Responses to food poverty extend well beyond the food banking idea, including community cafes, community shops, school breakfast clubs, holiday Make lunch schemes, food growing projects and numerous examples of courses and programmes teaching people to obtain cook and eat nutritious and affordable food. It would be good to have a wider evaluation of the impact of these diverse responses to the scandal of food poverty.


Kayleigh Garthwaite used an ethnographic approach to study the work of a local church based food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. Her writing gives due prominence to the voices of those who face day to day struggles to feed themselves and their families. She writes amusingly at times of the practical and ethical dilemmas of a participant observer researcher. Her first session as a volunteer involved her arriving early enough to join in the pre session prayer meeting at the church. As Christian volunteers prayed in turn around the group, she found herself as an unbeliever thinking that she was expected to offer a prayer and ended up mumbling a few words. And yet after a year of volunteering she still does not get that is spiritual capital that motivates the work that goes on in the majority of food banks, or at least she is so embarrassed about it that she dare not mention it in a secular book.


The stories and interviews reveal a wide range of people who are more than victims and dependent on charity. Rather they are real human beings facing a variety of struggles, often treated unjustly by the system, sometimes just stressed out by the circumstances of life and its random misfortunes, or overwhelmed by the economic and social changes that have impacted the urban areas of the north of England. While there are a handful who can be described as playing the system, and who might be able to overcome some of their problems buy wiser decision-making and better moral choices, the majority of food bank users only accept a referral from another agency as a last resort. Garthwaite writes with sensitivity about the sense of shame which accompanies each visit to the local food bank.


The analysis of food bank usage shows that the major cause of distress is a broken benefits system. Delays and administrative cockups, the punitive nature of the sanctions regime and the sheer meanness of current welfare provision in one of the richest countries of the world account for probably two thirds of food bank referrals. However increasingly our low wage economy and the precarious nature of the flexible labour market mean that more people who are officially seen as employed are faced with choices between feeding themselves and their families, heating their homes or paying bus fares so they can get to their jobs. As chapter 5 of the letter of James says to the plutocrats and tycoons of his time You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.


Inevitably there are some policy recommendations, most of which are sensible and would be welcome. We would all like to see the government recognise the issue of food poverty and that this is linked with the general issue of low income. It would be good to raise the National Minimum Wage so that it was a truly living wage and it would be more than welcome if we could abolish the punitive and arbitrary benefit sanctions and greatly improve the administrative procedures and empathy levels in the DWP. Sadly the government has little or no interest in doing so, especially as long as the majority of the electorate continue to make the distinction between a deserving and undeserving poor and are taken in by a narrative that divides the population into working families and claimants, strivers and shirkers. Although this storyline has been promoted for many decades by the right wing tabloid press it seems that it is now accepted by most of the mainstream political parties. As a result slightly radical ideas such as a basic citizen's income struggle to get on to the political agenda, being dismissed as entirely implausible.


In this context I find it hard to see how we can avoid food banks becoming a permanent institution in the provision of welfare. We really ought to be doing everything we can to do ourselves out of a job. There will be success in the enterprise when the very last food bank is closed. But for that to happen a political analysis and a political campaign is required. As long as the majority of people Christians included, see the main causes of poverty as addiction, poor budgeting and family breakdown, we will fail to address the structural economic and political causes of poverty today.


However minor tinkering on the margins of policy we'll never be very much use unless there is a radical reformulation of the whole market economy. Eradicating poverty before Kingdom Come, or a global revolution, is highly unlikely as Jesus himself recognised. But surely there must be some way of reducing inequality by the redistribution of wealth and income, insuring that adequately paid decent employment opportunities are available to everyone who can work, and that those who cannot for whatever reason, are kept from destitution by the sharing of society's resources. A proper listening to the voices of those who are struggling with hardship should convince us that we are all our brother and sister's keeper.



Overall the scenario for me is not a very hopeful one. But people of faith and Christians in particular, are called the people of hope. Indeed it is they who run and manage the vast majority of food poverty projects in Britain. What then are we called to do at the present time? In the first place we need to keep on keeping on, simply making sure by serving those in need that no one goes hungry. It's possible to do that in more efficient and more effective ways, perhaps by working better together in partnership with other agencies, in sourcing food for our food projects on a more wholesale basis, in ensuring that the food provided is not simply poor food for poor people (think 2000 cans of baked beans!),. We need to be better at signposting and connecting with other projects that can address underlying needs and support people in the wider context of their lives.


We can also strive to ensure that the services of our food banks do not operate as patronising charity, but that by listening carefully and building relationships with the people who use these services, we are operating on the basis of gracious human solidarity. In this context there is no "them" ; we are all us. This is perhaps one aspect of the Christian gospel that Garthwaite does fully understand. She speaks of American research which concludes that "social honour accrues to those who volunteer but stigma to those who are clients". This highlights the temptation for many of us Christians that we tend to serve because of our own need to be needed. Lord preserve us from this trap and teach us how to share love - simply because we have been loved.


There is another useful review of this book here



Review by Greg Smith, Development Worker, Together Lancashire and co-ordinator of Feeding Lancashire Together Network


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