Food Banks: Of community - and polarised politics

Food banks have become another one of those political footballs that get kicked around between left and right to seemingly little effect but stopping a great many people – or rather, more accurately, me - from giving them much or enough thought.

We saw another example of the polarisation over the weekend with a Mail on Sunday ‘special investigation’ from undercover reporters, headlined: ‘No ID, no checks... and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims.’

The piece targeted the Trussell Trust charity, which runs more than 400 of Britain’s 1,000 or so food banks and has been vociferous in criticising the Government for recent rises in demand for food banks. It fed into a general right-wing irritation about Labour using food banks to beat the government and provided a few good reasons for scepticism about the real circumstances of some people using them (for example those on big salaries made redundant who retain Sky TV and iPhone contracts).

As Roy Greenslade of the Guardian reported, the response from lefties on the Twittersphere was swift and excoriating (generally blaming the normal bête-noire the Daily Mail rather than the MoS); for example one tweeter got a lot of support by saying:

With this sort of political war – which has become increasingly common with the advent of Twitter – I generally let the shouters get on with their shouting while I get on with other things. Of the repeated outbreaks of outrage and apparent anger, I mostly side with the Greek stoic thinker Epictetus: “Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.”

But food banks are of course important as a political issue, and thankfully my almost wilful ignorance was breached upon reading a local newspaper last week.

In amongst a surely-unprecedented eight pages of local news (perhaps a record for a free local paper in recent years, and something that makes me happy as a hack by trade) was a piece on the Wimbledon food bank at Elim Pentecostal Church in South Wimbledon.

The story, by a prolific reporter called Louisa Clarence-Smith who seems to write the whole Wimbledon Guardian, said that the Elim food bank has seen growing demand since opening in November 2011 and has now fed 5,200 people from 17 local ward areas.
Volunteers at Wimbledon food bank

Marcus Bennett, a former pastor at Elim who now runs the food bank, told the paper: "The problem is no-one has any savings anymore."

"They did before the recession but they don't now. Everyone is a pay check away from disaster."

He added: "We see a lot of women whose husbands have lost their jobs, turned to the bottle and then turned on them.

"40 per cent of people are here from some problem with the benefits system.

"From our ten minutes with them it is hard to tell if it is a problem with the system or them missing a meeting. A lot of the time it's a bit of both."

This simple story engaged my attention as so many others don’t largely because it was about what is actually going on – illustrated with interesting quotations – rather than about the scoring of political points and the daily knockabout of politics in which you feel you can’t fully trust what you are being told (and that goes for my own Labour Party as much as the Tories).

KennyDownSouth’s tweet above, in which he says the scandal is that food banks exist at all, seems to join in with that knockabout rather than engage with the issues at stake.

For the existence of food banks isn’t necessarily a scandal – or rather not solely or necessarily a scandal. To start off with, as the excellent work of Tristram Stuart, an old friend of mine, has shown, we waste a great deal of our food across the chain of production, distribution and consumption; up to half of food in North America, Britain and the rest of Europe – apparently enough to feed the world’s hungry three times over. Food banks could be an ideal means of intervening to stop this waste – though they will need much greater institutional support to do so.

Also, food banks are a different form of social welfare to the traditional post-war form in which a state gives to the individual on an impersonal basis – a bureaucratic form of redistribution that is becoming less popular and less trusted as our society becomes more diverse and divided by greater gulfs of misunderstanding.

Food banks rather redistribute goods in kind on a person-to-person basis; the volunteers at Wimbledon food bank are on hand to talk to clients over a cup of tea and direct them to other sources of social help. This is what community is all about; the idea that we need less of it and more of the bureaucratic kind is something I find difficult to accept, though that is not to ignore problems in the welfare system.

Thinking about food banks, redistribution and community has also reminded me of the painter George Catlin’s accounts of his travels among the North American Indians in the 1830s and 1840s – especially those among tribes that were still relatively untouched by the (to them) catastrophic onslaught of white civilisation.

Of his time among the Mandans (who were wiped out by smallpox just four years after his visit), Catlin wrote:

"The pot is always boiling over the fire, and any one who is hungry (either of the household or from any other part of the village) has a right to order it taken off, and to fall to eating as he pleases. Such is an unvarying custom amongst the North American Indians, and I very much doubt, whether the civilized world have in their institutions any system which can properly be called more humane and charitable. Every man, woman, or child in Indian communities is allowed to enter any one’s lodge, and even that of the chief of the nation, and eat when they are hungry, provided misfortune or necessity has driven them to it. Even so can the poorest and most worthless drone of the nation; if he is too lazy to hunt or to supply himself, he can walk into any lodge and everyone will share with him as long as there is anything to eat. He, however, who thus begs when he is able to hunt, pays dear for his meat, for he is stigmatized with the disgraceful epithet of a poltroon and a beggar.”
A George Catlin painting of one of the Mandan villages, 1833
This account shows us a sense of community in which conditions are imposed on behaviour through the action of public opinion on individuals rather than through the state and indiscriminately on groups of people through the mass media (like the Mail papers). Catlin idealised such customs and praised the Indians for how well they treated him, other outsiders and each other, without need of written law and bureaucratic government.

The Indian communities he painted and wrote about in many ways represent a sort of utopia imagined variously by thinkers from Rousseau to Marx and even perhaps some small-state ideologues and anarchists of today. In one memorable passage Catlin writes of returning to 'civilisation' at St Louis, and the first thing that happens is his boat gets stolen – that after travelling two thousand miles up and down the Missouri in, and trusting many thousands of Indians, with it:

some mystery or medicine operation had relieved me from any further anxiety or trouble about it – it had gone and never returned, although it had safely passed the countries of mysteries, and had often laid weeks and months at the villages of red men, with no laws to guard it”.

Bureaucratic systems, private, public and voluntary, are always open to abuse by those of us who wish to ‘game’ them – both from inside and outside.

I can’t help thinking that the more we make ourselves responsible for our actions in such matters as giving and taking – which also means others holding us accountable (for example in a food bank) – the more trusting and happy our societies will be. But ironically it will take rather a lot of government action to make that possible, and to make it work.


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