Christian food aid could be excluding those from other religions in need of help
Click the link to read it:
The longer academic version of the research paper is published in Journal of Social Policy and can be accessed here
In summary it finds
Few Muslims going to Christian food banks
During six months in 2015, we spoke to 27 people working to help provide food aid and combat food poverty in Bradford. The people we spoke to were either directly managing a food bank, or held positions of responsibility to try and prevent food poverty, including in local government.
Despite the generosity of many of those involved, we found that some food aid was being dispersed in a way that could potentially be exclusive. In Bradford, faith-based food aid was common, but most faith-based providers were Christian, with very little Muslim provision. Of the 67 community food aid providers, 35 were secular, 24 Christian and seven Muslim. Secular provision is largely run by charities, a minority of which are funded by the local authorities.
For example, most secular and Christian organisations were unable to cater for cultural diets, and did not provide halal meals.
A manager of a Christian food bank told us that faith-based food aid could be considered an opportunity for preaching to or praying with clients, at times with the objective of religious conversion:
The other thing which some people find difficult but which we do offer, we make it clear that we are a group of churches running it and that we are a Christian organisation. We believe in the power of prayer and we offer to pray with people.
This raises some important questions for those of us working or volunteering in food projects in multi-faith areas such as Lancashire. However as the authors state they have only been studying the situation in one city on the wrong side of the Pennines and Bradford is a particularly unusual city with a high degree of residential segregation between predominantly poor white and poor almost exclusively Pakistani Muslim neighbourhoods.
The authors hint at some factors which might explain the pattern of provision and take up of charitable food provision though some of them need to be questioned and analysed in greater depth before accepting the suggestion that there is systematic, albeit unintentional, exclusion of minority faith people in need of food.
Culturally and Religiously restricted diets halal food :
It's probably true some food banks and open kitchens haven't even thought about this, probably on the basis they think there is no demand, but it should be fairly easy to ensure there is a choice of vegetarian food which is usually acceptable in most of the faith communities.
Geographical distribution of services...
Providing free food is usually a very localised service, but it does often depend on the location of available and suitable premises. Inevitably there is a postcode lottery in food provision, depending on where relatively thriving churches, temples, mosques and community sectors are to be found.. and whether the people who manage them have a vision for setting up and sustaining a food project. The critique here should be addressed to politicians who have over recent years dismantled many aspects of the welfare state, made receipt of benefits highly conditional, and been content to scrounge off churches and charities to plug the holes of provision for destitute and vulnerable people.
What proportion of Pakistani Muslims in Bradford are in need of food aid?
The researchers tentatively suggest "some ethnic minority groups, despite often being in a low socio-economic position, have better health outcomes than expected due to support within their social networks . Lower levels of food insecurity among Pakistani Muslims would be in keeping with this." It does seem plausible that a high proportion of white people who attend food banks are isolated individuals, suffering from what CUF calls in its web of poverty, poverty of relationships. However, there is no evidence presented, (and it would be very difficult to gather it) as to whether this is the case. It is also plausible as the researchers point out that help is found through the existence of alternative, hidden forms of food assistance among the Pakistani Muslim community surrounding mosques. Or it may be that family and biradari networks are sufficient to make sure no one goes hungry for long.
The shame factor
One concept that is totally missing from the research paper is that of "shame". In every faith and ethnic group it is not easy to admit that you cannot feed yourself and your household. Visiting a food bank which inevitably is a public act, and often needs formal referral interviews is emotionally difficult for most people. In a close community where everybody knows everybody else's business it is doubly so. And since most Muslim communities, and Pakistani ones in particular have highly developed notions of izzat (honour) and shame that redound on the whole family it is likely to be extremely difficult to ask for help with food. It is also conceivable that many would prefer to ask the council or a Christian food provider before risking an approach to their local neighbourhood mosque.
The religious ethos...
In my view the researchers comments on the religious ethos of food provision is not based on a high level of religious literacy or close observation of everyday interaction in multi-faith communities. It is the case that some Christian churches, and indeed mosques and other faith based organisations, may be clumsy and insensitive in expressing their beliefs and may indeed have inappropriate priorities about the call to conversion. The reality however is that when asked about faith and values, people of faith cannot be expected to keep silent. Personal experience over many years in East London and Lancashire suggests that few people of minority faith are offended by the articulation of Christian belief, and vice versa. Indeed many expect and prefer people to be up front about faith rather than rely on a cold secular an bureaucratic organisation. Indeed many Muslims are happy to attend church schools, children's clubs and family activities such as Messy Church. It may of course be different in some highly segregated and polarised cities such as Bradford, and at highly politicised moments, such as the Iraq war and the current post-Brexit. However it would be wrong to assume that religious ethos in itself is a driver of religious discrimination in service delivery.
I am interested to receive feedback from people in the Together Lancashire and wider Together Network as to whether the picture painted for Bradford rings true for your work.
My impression of food project work in Lancashire towns suggests a different story. There are a number of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and secular food provider services, and many of these work happily together in providing help to anyone in need. The varied geography and demography of the county means that some local providers may rarely if ever expect to see a Muslim, while others have a mixed clientele.
However, it is really important that we all keep examining ourselves to make sure our services are high quality and open to all, and that if we ever talk about our faith, or offer to pray with or for our service users, we do that in a sensitive way which respects their integrity and personal religious views.
Please do respond.. and lets have a discussion about the best way forward.