Banking on Handouts: Food Poverty in the Big Society

Recently, as part of orientation to a new job, I went on a tour of a local foodbank and was very nearly reduced to tears. It is hard to put into words just how distressing I find the plight of fellow human beings for the bare basics of food in order to subsist. It is a devastating state of affairs that since 2012, 14,000 people (nearly a quarter of whom are children) in communities across Scotland have found themselves in such desolation that they have been forced to have to ask for donated handouts of basic food rations.

Mmmm......tinned stuff.

Mmmm……tinned stuff.

Nothing symbolises the desperate domestic times we live in more than this increasing prominence of foodbanks. And it’s only getting worse. One look at the disaster/aggressive assault on society’s most vulnerable that is the phasing out of Disability Living Allowance into Personal Independence Payment and you’re faced with sanctions within four weeks of failing to respond to your “invitation” to apply and cancelled claims after eight, leaving people with another twelve weeks without income waiting for DWP to bother their arse to process the new claim. And that’s a claim for a shittier and even more horrifically assessed benefit – don’t walk those twenty metres from the bus stop pal or your journey’s already wasted as ATOS is gunna get you hard, right in the baws for being such a nauseating drain on society with your chronic condition/disability/mental health diagnosis. A bleak prophecy yes, but one which is imminent and only one example of the disgraceful situations which are and will be driving people to foodbanks in every corner of the nation, screaming of a level of deprivation, poverty and desperation that no-one of any conscience or moral fibre should be comfortable with on any level.

But this is Tory Britain and Tory Britain is a heartless, selfish brute.

Like all things associated with the “undeserving poor” of Great ol’ Blighty, the myths and blame rhetoric around food banks has been rampant. The right-wing response to foodbanks has actually managed to surpass predictable and enter the realm of unbelievable. Just recently (well I mean it’s every day but) the slimy weasel that is Michael Gove once again asserted himself as the biggest wretch in the union with his declaration that foodbanks are merely the refuge of those who can’t budget, followed this week by Paul Maynard jumping on the blame rhetoric with the traditional classist references to the wee dirty bad habits of the poor. These people are in a vulnerable position and need these foodbanks to survive, most do not stay on foodstamps indefinitely but use one of the Purple Payday loan services for example to get out of this position. The myth-making, the self-interested lies, blaming and finger-pointing are breathtaking in both ignorance and offensiveness and are so desperately far removed from the type of society I want to live in and the type of independent progressive Scotland that we at ATF have aspirations for.

Margaret* runs a foodbank from a parish church near Edinburgh, and Margaret tells quite a different story to that of Mr Gove. She’s quite perplexed, she tells me, about what actually happened when he visited the foodbank he cited in his speech last week: “who did he talk to? Because it is definitely not a reflection of the people I’ve had in this foodbank” she exclaims. Since the 9th of July, Margaret and her team of seven volunteers have supplied food packs to 286 local people and families. 171 of these have been within the last month alone and Margaret reports that it is only getting busier and busier. Young single people are the biggest group that Margaret sees come through her doors. They’re often also homeless and without food mainly due to benefit cuts and sanctions, or waiting those long twelve weeks for claims to be processed. Every story is different Margaret tells me, but with the commonality of real and genuine need: “it’s not people not managing their finances. It’s waiting for benefits, sanctions and the cuts – the bedroom tax is crippling people. People are paying their bills first. Food is last on the list.”

Source: Left Foot Forward

Source: Left Foot Forward

The motto at this foodbank is one of ‘Restoring People’s Dignity’. A big ask. Needing  free food because you can’t afford to feed yourself can’t be easy I say to Margaret who agrees wholeheartedly and tells me just how mortified and embarrassed clients are when they arrive. It is clear that Margret and her team do everything they can to combat that sense of shame. They’ve just moved to a more private location, they’ve got teas and coffees on the boil and whilst they absolutely spend the time to listen and talk to those that walk through the doors, the actual food “handover” is done with a breeziness and easiness which is as cringe and judgement-free as possible. Margaret is clear that this approach is integral to the foodbank doing what it’s supposed to: “we don’t judge” she tells me, “everyone is a day away. I wouldn’t last twelve weeks if I took sick or was made redundant. I’ve got a mortgage to pay.”

Yet, whilst I have no doubt that Margaret and her team are doing a tremendous job and fulfilling a vital need, I can’t help but feel that foodbanks are anything but dignified. What they are is a very real and direct result of the inhumane ConDem world of systematic attacks on the poor which have left people having to watch literally every penny and repeatedly being unable to make ends meet. This is nothing short of outright shameful. It’s the modern day bread queue, it’s the mainstream soup kitchen just in tinned goods and dried pasta. What is particularly worrying is that Margaret tells me that a great deal of the people she sees are actually working. It shouldn’t be surprising really, in-work poverty isn’t a new thing. But it’s getting worse and that’s terrifying. People are sanctioned and end up at foodbanks, people take a poorly paid, shitty termed, zero-hours contract job and they’re just as fucked, begging for some coco pops and some tea bags at the church door. Margaret shares my troubled feelings about this: “it’s the government who have made people live like this. They’re not really supporting people to work – low income, wages aren’t going up even though the cost of living is, not helping people with childcare. They’re promoting families but how can you promote families when you’re telling people to go out to work no matter what and when they’re aren’t enough jobs for people?”

Thank god for foodbanks eh? Well…yeah…but…Ok so they stop people starving but they’re no long term option. These are the very basics – fuel for the body in order to stay alive. Unfortunately, it is an uncomfortable truth that alongside payday loans (another source of hardship which Margaret sees as a reason for people coming through the doors, having often already used the money they’ve borrowed for, well….food), foodbanks are increasingly being accepted as another unofficial layer of the welfare state. That’s just not ok with me. Without reverting to boring old lefty speak about the cover-up role of the charity sector, if they must exist foodbanks should be the desperate, short-term measure, not the creeping permanent fixture which they seem to be morphing into with MPs cutting the ribbons like they’re new nurseries or leisure centres. But this is the Big Society isn’t it? Communities and churches rallying round in times of need – a rosy picture of community cohesion indeed, that is if it weren’t for the, y’know, acute poverty driving it. Peasants! Give those range rover mums with some spare time something to do, some cakes to bake!

Food bank investigation by the Sunday Mirror-1519590

It feels as though across the UK there is a worrying sense of growing complacency, of acceptance of foodbanks as part of the community landscape. Of course, on one hand this helps combat stigma and makes it easier for those who need help to ask for it but this is a dangerously slippy slope which essentially allows Cameron et al to negate their duties to ensure that citizens are consistently afforded at least the very bare basics, and allows them to continue to wage their war against the deprived and vulnerable. Responses at the food drives at local supermarkets are fantastic Margaret tells me. That’s great I say, but I just hope people don’t come to see that as a norm which is established and ok, not because people don’t deserve handouts but because handouts on this scale are nothing but acute markings a society which is failing to be truly politically and socially responsible. “We’re pre-welfare state” Margaret states bluntly. I couldn’t agree more I tell her, and it’s breaking my heart.

*Name has been changed on request.

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One response to “Banking on Handouts: Food Poverty in the Big Society

  1. Compel the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts:
    So shall you govern over all. Let Moral Duty tune your tongue,
    But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone…
    Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
    With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
    And when his children sicken, let them die: there are enough
    Born, even too many, and our earth will soon be overrun
    Without these arts. If you would make the Poor live with temper,
    With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
    Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
    Say he smiles, if you hear him sigh; if pale, say he is ruddy.
    Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d, and drowns his wit
    In strong drink, tho’ you know that bread and water are all
    He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
    Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.

    William Blake The Four Zoas 1807.

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