In his introduction to Labour’s election manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn pledged to end something he called “food bank Britain”, and when I read that my immediate thought was: “I hope he never does.” This is not because I take any delight in the idea that thousands of my fellow citizens regularly go to local food banks to get food to feed themselves and their families, but rather because of the deeper significance of food banks; what the fact of their existence actually tells us about this country and its people. Our network of food banks should be a cause for national pride, not shame; food bank Britain is not a symptom of decline or national hard-heartedness: it shows us as our best. Let me explain.
Ten years or so ago I got involved in setting up a food bank in Oxford. It was a bit different from most food banks because, rather than receive food donations from the public to give to families in need, it set out to be a “food recovery” operation. We asked supermarkets and wholesalers to give us their surplus fresh food (bread left over at the end of the day, wilting vegetables, that sort of thing) which we then gave to other charities operating in the city. The idea quickly took off and today the organisation is a well-established part of the city’s charity landscape. My involvement taught me many lessons: about the colossal (and shameful) amount of food that is wasted daily across the country but also that voluntary action, at a local level, is a good in and of itself. To paraphrase Shakespeare on mercy: the quality of food banks is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
In the Book of Revelation it is promised that eventually God will “wipe away every tear” and it is a long-standing fantasy of the British Left that our welfare state should emulate this feat. But there are practical reasons why this will never happen and what’s more, why it should not.
One of the surprising things I learnt from my food bank experience was the appetite there is for volunteering: it was never a problem to get volunteers to drive our vans and hump around sacks of potatoes. On the contrary we often had to put volunteers on a waiting list. It’s easy to sneer at ‘do-gooders’ (and some on the Left make a speciality of it) but the instinct that drives people to offer their labour free of charge is surely a good thing. It means that individuals make a personal investment in their local community — and these are the ties which bind. A well-stocked, well-run food bank is a sign of a healthy community.
I am pretty sure that when Mr Corbyn wrote about ending food bank Britain he was not aiming his guns at local volunteer groups; what he meant, I think, was that the benefits system should be generous enough to ensure that no one need access a food bank ever again. But there are good reasons to believe that, however munificent the social security payments were, we would never arrive at that happy destination. However hard we try there are always going to be some people in poverty; a combination of bad luck and bad individual choices will ensure it is so. Our benefits system is designed to provide a basic standard of living but despite its good intentions there are always going to be circumstances in which people don’t get what they need. It is an intractable failing of a huge bureaucratic mechanism.
Food banks are a relatively new phenomenon. They burst into the national consciousness in a major way some time in the noughties and the reason they did was largely through the efforts of a charity, The Trussell Trust, which now operates about 1,200 centres across the country.
Because the work of food banks is so practical — there is, after all, no charitable action more basic and fundamental than giving food to the poor — their appeal was immediate; kind and well-intentioned people saw food banks as a straightforward vehicle for their generosity. New food banks sprang up everywhere and because they were newcomers to the charity scene — the Trussell Trust only got going in 1997 — they attracted a lot of media attention.
Much of that media coverage was misleading. The rise in the number of food banks was used to argue that ‘food poverty’ was on the rise, but that was faulty logic. Commentators and politicians said: “Look at the facts. Last year another x hundred food banks opened round the country. That proves our point.” Actually the rate at which new food banks were opening was unrelated to the underlying real rate of poverty. What the statistics demonstrated was that the food bank movement had caught the public imagination; people saw them as a way of helping others in the most practical way possible. The food banks were offering a new and useful service to people on very low incomes who flocked to them. Why wouldn’t they? If you are on a very tight budget a local food bank can ease the pressure. But, inevitably, food banks got dragooned into the political debate.
The food bank argument is now a permanent fixture in the Left’s political rhetoric. In the run-up to the election The Independent carried a story about a Tory candidate (and now MP), Darren Henry, who at a public meeting was incautious enough to offer the opinion that people who use food banks are often those who can’t manage their budgets properly. Predictably his comments were condemned by his opponents and, as the paper said, “drew gasps from the audience”.
He may well be right but he would have been better advised to keep his thoughts to himself; this is an argument the Right can never win. The Independent article, in typically tendentious fashion, observed: “The proliferation of food banks, which were rare before the 2008 financial crash, has increased hugely under the Conservative government, with many experts and campaigners blaming austerity and policies such as universal credit for driving the surge in need.” This is a perfect example of how the truth gets mangled in the poverty debate.
Yes, it is true that food banks were uncommon in the early years of the new millennium; that’s because the movement was only just getting going. And then came the financial crash and reporters had to find a way of illustrating their stories. What better way than to highlight the growing numbers of food banks? The coverage acted as promotional videos for the food bank movement; it touched the generous instincts of the country and lo! food banks sprang up everywhere. What gets overlooked is that, had food banks been operating 30, 40 or 50 years ago they would have been just as well patronised — but then no one had thought of them.
None of this debate should obscure a fundamental truth: it is good to feed the poor. The Church has always seen it as one of the “corporal works of mercy”, that is those actions which attend to basic human necessity. It’ll be a black day when Britain fails to rise to the challenge of poverty and, despite the wonders of our welfare state, there will always be the need for that to be supplemented by the efforts of individuals.
I would go further: it is neither possible, nor desirable, that the state should displace and render unnecessary all voluntary charitable action. Across the country millions of people volunteer their time and effort to help make life a little better for others. Both sides gain from this arrangement and government is well advised to let the volunteers get on with it.
While the state should never lose sight of its obligations to the poor food banks should make us proud, not ashamed.