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Let food bank clients eat cake The receipt of charity shouldn't be conditional on the renunciation of pleasure

Vegetables are not very comforting. Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Vegetables are not very comforting. Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images


July 15, 2020   6 mins

In 1909, Maud Pember Reeves, a bank manager’s daughter with a big house in Kensington, came up with a plan to make British poverty less lethal. She would cross the river, enter the houses of the poor in Lambeth, and preach — in her words — the gospel of porridge.

Reeves was an energetic and successful socialist campaigner. In New Zealand, she’d helped secure votes for women. In London, where she moved in 1896, she founded the Fabian Women’s Group in her front room in Brunswick Gardens and, appalled by the disparities in child mortality rates across the city, decided to investigate. She and her fellow Fabian Dr Ethel Bentham recruited a cohort of 42 mothers and encouraged them to keep records of their domestic expenditure, with a particular emphasis on diet. Some were not literate, but their children were. Their spelling was often touchingly hard to decipher. Reeves scratched her head at references to items such as “dryaddick”, “sewuitt” and “currince”.1

Reeves and her Fabian comrades wanted to answer questions that attended the discussion of poverty in the Edwardian age, and are still asked today. Why did the working poor spend so much on the wrong things? (Lavish funerals, it seems, were the Sky boxes of 1909.) Why did they eat unhealthy food? Why, for instance, did they have bread and margarine for breakfast when a nice bowl of porridge was cheaper and more nutritious? “The women of Lambeth listened patiently,” wrote Reeves, “according to their way, agreed to all that was said, and did not begin to feed their families on porridge.”

Over a century later, the preaching goes on. At the end of last month, the staff at my local food bank used Twitter to issue a statement about confectionery:

The announcement provoked an indignant report in the Lewisham News Shopper and a convulsion of disgust on Twitter — which was quickly converted into pledges of Milkybars and Curly Wurlys.

Human emotions are historically contingent. Nobody today is plagued by acedia, the form of religious despair felt by fourth-century Christian desert hermits between 11am and 4pm. Others are culturally specific. Only the Ilongot group of the Philippines feel liget, an angry enthusiasm that pushes them to great feats of activity – sometimes agricultural, sometimes murderous. So what’s the nature of the concern felt by those donors who complained about the presence of chocolate in the parcels sent out by the Lewisham food bank?

It’s a powerful emotion, clearly. Powerful enough to move several people to share it with a group of volunteers distributing domestic food aid during a pandemic. (The food bank informed me that objections had been received in private messages, some sent via a local councillor.) But how could we describe its qualities?

Is it a relation, perhaps, of the feeling described by Edwina Currie when she spoke in 2014 of being “very, very troubled at the number of people who are using food banks who 
 never learn to cook, they never learn to manage and the moment they’ve got a bit of spare cash they’re off getting another tattoo”? Or perhaps it’s closer to the melancholia expressed by Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, who last week declared herself “Saddened to hear of incidents of some parents using free school meals vouchers for alcohol & non food products despite clear restrictions.” Her sadness was so profound that it seems to have rendered her incapable of confirming whether these were anything more than rumours she heard down the newly-reopened pub.

The minister should probably cheer up. The meal voucher scheme is for food. It would be as easy to buy a bottle of gin with a book token. However, as it is funded and administered by the taxpayer, she is entitled to ask questions about it, no matter how tangential.

The food bank system is different. It takes no money from the state. It is a voluntary enterprise that depends on donations from local people. Donors are not obliged to supply foodstuffs to which they may have a moral or a medical objection. Most people, I suspect, would judge that a food bank package contains little that would imperil anyone’s commitment to a life of monotonous frugality. But if anyone does believe that tinned tomatoes are a gateway to sybaritism, they can simply decline to supply them.

Food bank packages are not like those that middle-class people give each other when they are enduring misery and distress, with their M&S ready meals, bars of Green and Black’s and nice bottle of Beaujolais. (Though I find it hard to formulate any strong objection to a food bank distributing these items, were any donors generous enough to supply them.) And yet the complaints come — and are so strong and numerous that the Trussell Trust issues instructions to its volunteers on how to reply. Hopefully they can use this advice to assuage the pain that threshes the hearts of those who think the poor are not doing poverty correctly.

George Orwell puzzled over these impulses in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), his classic account of working-class life in industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire. He was reflecting on the sorry history of the Means Test, a much-hated government policy that sent inspectors into the homes of British people to inspect their food cupboards and make suggestions about what valuables they should sell before being confirmed poor enough to receive unemployment relief.

When the test was introduced in 1931, the letters pages of the British press buzzed with debate about how to set the value of this benefit — or, as Orwell put it, “a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive.” One correspondent to the New Statesman sent in his idea of a weekly budget for a single unemployed man — four shillings a week, to be spent on bread, margarine, dripping, cheese, carrots, onions, broken biscuits, dried fruit, oranges and a tin of evaporated milk. (Fuel was not included, as this was all to be consumed raw.)

Orwell suspected that the letter was a hoax. He reasoned, however, that even if its recommendations made nutritional sense, few would follow them. “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t,” he argued. “When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull and wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’”.

The point of chocolate is its smooth consoling sweetness; the way it snaps and crumbles and melts against the roof of your mouth. Why deny that pleasure to food bank clients? You might argue that chocolate is bad for you and people should not eat it. You might argue that the receipt of charity should be conditional on the renunciation of pleasure, and that chocolate mars the purity of the contract between the donor and the recipient. But you might also just mind your own damn business.

George Orwell didn’t much like the Fabians. The Road to Wigan Pier reserves some of its most venomous comments for them. Orwell dismissed the society’s leading light, Beatrice Webb, as a “high-minded socialist slum visitor” who, like others of her type, understood revolution as “a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders”.

But he would have had no grounds on which to lecture Maud Pember Reeves. The book in which she published her research, Round About a Pound a Week (1913), is the story of how its author renounced the gospel of porridge. She did so because she listened to the women whose experiences she recorded. They told her that porridge required long cooking and that gas was expensive; that porridge burned easily, and demanded attention when they were busy getting their children up and dressed; that it picked up the flavour of last night’s dinner from the household’s only pan. Moreover, without milk or sugar, children simply didn’t like porridge. (“They ’eaved at it,” one mother reported.)

As for the surprisingly lavish funerals, Reeves also got to the bottom of that mystery. Most working-class parents, she discovered, bought funeral insurance at a penny a week for every child as it was born. She inquired among the undertakers of London and discovered that it cost 18 shillings to bury a baby and 20 shillings for an older child. Cemetery charges could push the final figure to 30s. A family obliged to cover that expense in one week would be forced to ration its food to almost nothing — which risked the possibility of more sickness and death.

Reeves had never experienced poverty, but she was acquainted with grief. Her son, William, had died in infancy in New Zealand. (Another, Fabian, was killed on duty with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917.) She knew there were some calculations that only the poor understood.

The legacy of Fabianism is ambivalent. It was a formative influence on the welfare state. It also had an authoritarian streak. Some of its adherents wanted to sterilise the poor. That’s not an argument you hear much these days — though in 2012, Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, wrote a blog post suggesting that unemployed men should have vasectomies in order to prevent Britain “drowning in a vast sea of unemployed wasters”. Mr Bradley is another figure worried by the summer holiday extension to the school meal voucher system. “I have,” he told Parliament on 16 June, “one concern 
” Thankfully, the education secretary was able to clear it up pretty briskly. No, you cannot use lunch tokens to buy fags, booze or scratchcards.

This week it emerged that in the first six months of 2020, 2,500 children were hospitalised with symptoms of malnutrition — double the rate for the same period last year. The figure was calculated from data extracted from NHS trusts by a Freedom of Information request. As only two thirds of those trusts responded, the total is probably much higher.

I hope some Parliamentary questions will be asked about this grim statistic. It seems kind of urgent. Did these children end up in hospital because they ate too much chocolate? Or is there, perhaps, some other explanation? We should know the truth, however sad it makes us, however bitter the taste.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Dried haddock, suet and currants, in case you were wondering.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.

drmatthewsweet

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SUSAN HILL
SUSAN HILL
3 years ago

I always add a few treats when putting items in the food bank collection bins at the supermarket..usually chocolate biscuits or cake or chocolate bars. It looks so bleak just to see Weetabix & tinned beans. Quite right, as you say..if I have treats in my trolley why shouldn’t they ?

lwilcox148
lwilcox148
3 years ago
Reply to  SUSAN HILL

Well done you.. you must feel very righteous and neighbourly.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  lwilcox148

Congratulations on being an ass.

Val Cox
Val Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  SUSAN HILL

Because it isn’t a “right” is it? If you want to do something nice that is different and commendable.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Val Cox

She didn’t say it was a “right.” She used a figure of speech. She could have said, “yes,” or, “it’s true,” or, “I agree.” And you could have avoided being a jerk with your comment. I suspect that people who know you would have found that “different,” about you, but not commendable, rather, “shocking.”

Paul Blakemore
Paul Blakemore
3 years ago

I read a number of the alcohol/food voucher press stories last week; it seems the notion came from supermarket workers, or one shop worker at least, who was quoted (I don’t remember which newspaper/s it was in). Whether or not this is true, I am often shocked by the apparently widespread belief that poverty does not exist in modern Britain, or the fairly callous attitudes expressed by some people toward those less fortunate than themselves.
There are younger people in the company I work for who are paid £20k a year. I have no idea how they can afford to live in London; let alone have anything approaching a decent quality of life. It is easy to see how someone earning a minimum wage would struggle to pay rent, travel costs and bills; and have little left for food. If that person is a parent it follows that their children could end up hungry, even malnourished, even if their parents were loving, selfless experts on nutrition. £15 a week for food is very little, but someone on the legal minimum wage could struggle to have that amount left for food when struggling to keep a roof over their family’s head. Recent reports from Leicester mention garment workers being paid £4 an hour.
Of course a significant number of people/parents are irresponsible: they drink alcohol, take drugs, gamble, not infrequently to excess. They also tend to be the less well-educated. Which is presumably why the government issues food vouchers rather than makes cash payments. It is right and proper that society try to help children living in poverty. Given the economic sh*tstorm that is heading our way, I think the government should ask people like me to pay more tax.

lwilcox148
lwilcox148
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Blakemore

If you keep loweting the bar as do where poverty begins, you will eventually find many of us are in poverty. In real terms poverty is how we spend our money, not how much we have. Sanctimonious, virtue signallers like you don’t need to be asked to pay more tax, just send the IR a cheque. I prefer to keep as much of my hard earned money as I can in order to spend it as wisely as I want.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I have always thought that the idea of food banks was to provide food to those who are unable to afford it. They might be unable to afford it for a variety of reasons – but they still needed food to live.
Whilst Chocolate is nice to have it is not essential for life.
However as a smoker, free tobacco would be good – would you approve of that?

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

A good point, but with a fatal flaw: chocolate is nourishing, with plenty of calories to help stop you starving. Tobacco will also give you a dopamine hit, but hammer one more nail in your coffin.

Vibeke Lawrie
Vibeke Lawrie
3 years ago

As a former social worker and smoker have often been tempted to drop packets of fags into foodbank collection boxes. Feel they might cheer up the collection of worthy items already there. Just know they will be confiscated so stick to crisps and biscuits.

Martin Bourne
Martin Bourne
3 years ago

That some non-necessities are harmful does not mean all non-necessities are harmful

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Surely the last place to which you would send malnourished children is an NHS hospital! They will only become more enfeebled.

That aside, there is no reason for anyone to be malnourished in modern Britain given that fruit and vegetables are virtually free by historical standards and the supermarkets massively mark down perfectly good food due to use-by dates etc. I typically eat very well for around 15 pounds a week. And the government should not be buying meals for all these children over the summer. The parents should be paying for them. Or Marcus Rashford.

Jamie Gerry
Jamie Gerry
3 years ago

Most of the ‘customers’ to our food back in London are illegal migrants. Single parenting is the main path to poverty in the UK, but no political party wants to incentivise marriage.

Martin Bourne
Martin Bourne
3 years ago
Reply to  Jamie Gerry

How do you know that they are illegal immigrants as opposed to appearing to be foreign?

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

The left, including the current government have a different means of reducing the birth rate.

They have begun to introduce abortion to full term, starting in Northern Ireland, among the religious communities. They have brought in abortion at home, which I have no doubt will stay in place after Covid legislation is lifted (if it ever is). They have allowed ‘do not resuscitate’ notices to be imposed on anyone elderly, that is over 70, or those with even the mildest learning difficulties. It has introduced the ridiculous notion of ‘presumed consent’ for the removal of body parts from the undead. I bet it will turn out in ten years time the organs of the poor will have been whipped out after brain death to keep alive the wealthy. They have introduced the paedophiles sex education agenda i to primary schools, in order to allow the continued rape and abuse of children disguising it as the child’s choice now the children’s home scandal has been exposed. The green agenda will leave the rural poor to freeze, off grid for gas which is to be phased out, unable to afford electric heating, banned from burning coal or sticks,

Don’t be fooled into thinking it is only obvious eugenicists in the Tory Party that wish to severely reduce the native, working class population, it is the policy of all the mainstream political parties.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

As always, Alison, you are bang on the money.

Kanye West and Candace Owens have woken up to this in the US, with Kanye stating just the other day that the progressive left has maintained a deliberate and determined policy of siting abortion clinics in urban areas occupied mainly by black Americans.

Thus, last year there were more black babies aborted in New York than actually born. (To make matters worse one of those babies was shot and killed the other day, but that’s another issue). I can’t remember the number of black babies aborted since Roe v Wade but it will make your stomach churn – and I am (broadly) pro-choice.

Equally stomach churning, as Candace Owens points out, is the way in which de Blasio and the progressive in NY lit up the Empire State Building in order to celebrate the introduction of full term abortion. These people are sick, very sick.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Not surprising since the original Progressive movement in the US in the early 20th century was the seedbed for the Eugenics movement that inspired the Nazi party in Germany.

The big industrialists were huge fans of improving the human race by weeding out the “inferior lineages”. Henry Ford and Charles Limbergh are two of the many, many well known proponents of, as Margaret Sanger the founder of the Birth control movement in the US wrote,””the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”

Sanger, The founder of Planned Parenthood, a saint in Progressive circles, purposely sited the organization’s clinics in black areas.

Very sick.

c-smith1964
c-smith1964
3 years ago

An elderly friend in her 80s was horrified at the number smoking in a food bank queue. She didn’t donate food again. How people are perceived can also impact on those who are not spending money on non essentials.

Martin Bourne
Martin Bourne
3 years ago
Reply to  c-smith1964

The undeserving poor spoil it for the rest

crazydiamond2310
crazydiamond2310
3 years ago
Reply to  c-smith1964

It’s not the children’s fault if their parents are smokers.

David George
David George
3 years ago

Yeah, whatever. It still doesn’t help the cause to see seriously fat people, and not just a minority, queuing up at the food bank.
I used to donate but after seeing that? Nah.

Adam Randon
Adam Randon
3 years ago
Reply to  David George

It’s much easier to get fat when you’re poor. Lean meat, tasty veg and fruit tend to cost money. Refined flour and sugar, the cheap fatty offcuts of meat, salt and vegetable oil are the foundation stones of cheap food.

lwilcox148
lwilcox148
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam Randon

Animal fat is good for you. Read up on diets

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam Randon

Utter nonsense. I eat lean meat and/or fish, veg and fruit every day. This week I spent about 12 pounds on food. I am not poor – in fact I’m quite rich by most standards – but I buy from markets and pick up good that is past it’s use-by date or whatever.

Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
3 years ago
Reply to  David George

From the Government’s own figures, 40% of children from disadvantaged homes are obese.

crazydiamond2310
crazydiamond2310
3 years ago

Different people have different ideas of what constitutes a treat. I always make sure I put plenty of vegan items in the collection bins. Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they have to eat against their principles. I also put some toiletries in such as feminine hygiene products, disposable razors and shaving foam, and during this pandemic some hand sanitiser.

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
3 years ago

I live in a fairly well-to-do enclave. People round here are very generous when it comes to food bank appeals and constantly virtue signal their solidarity with the poor. However, I have noticed that our shopping baskets generally don’t reflect what’s bought for the food bank. Instead of bundles of asparagus, sacks of avocados and sheaves of fresh herbs, I see tinned peaches, UHT milk, value range bags of flour and supermarket sanitary wear.

Jen Jardine
Jen Jardine
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Smith

Yeah well all the foods you mentioned are perishables, and while one might wish to donate these items, the food banks are not really set up to handle and distribute them. So, tins and packets are what’s needed.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Smith

If you think the people who go to food banks will eat avocados, asparagus and fresh herbs – or anything green or healthy whatsoever – you are utterly mad. I suppose they might seize on the avocados in the assumption that they are hand grenades.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

What a generalisation!

crazydiamond2310
crazydiamond2310
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Nothing like a bit of disgraceful stereotyping.