"There is enough food for everybody but not everybody is getting enough"
In this extract from his new book Bread of Life in Broken Britain Charles Pemberton outlines some of the complexities at the heart of the growth of food bank use.
It’s June, 2018, and one of the hottest days of an already hot summer. In Durham United Reformed Church’s community hall, three County Durham Food bank volunteers sit at fold out tables waiting for anyone who needs a food parcel, and one regular visitor sits at a table in the corner concentrating on a laptop. Her name is Jane and she is in her late 40s. After seventeen and a half years working in the care sector, up to January 2016, she was made redundant and she has been visiting the Durham city centre food bank two or three times a month since for a toastie, a tea and free internet access. Along with her job searches, she cares for her elderly mother and volunteers at two Durham charities. We are talking, intermittently, and she tells me that while she has never collected a food parcel from the food bank, she likes coming here, finding it a source of confidence and support. I ask her how she first heard of County Durham Food bank
The food bank was mentioned at the Job Centre, for job search support. I come for the PC access. I like it here, the food bank is good, I can talk with people, home can be lonely. From coming to the food bank I’ve got more confidence and now I’m doing some volunteering, at the British Heart foundation and with the Sally Army (Salvation Army).
Jane has a history of working night shifts in residential care with elderly mentally infirm (EMI) patients. When she was moved from night shifts to day shifts she struggled with the transition and was made redundant.
The night shifts had an impact on my health. I needed sleeping tablets to help me be able to do the day shifts when I changed over. But I was then struggling in the days, groggy, feeling confused, and that was part of me being made redundant cause I couldn’t do the job properly.
I ask her about her experience of being unemployed and searching for work in the north east.
Unemployment has been horrible. I’ve done hundreds of applications for jobs and had 15 interviews. Nothing yet though. My confidence, its really brought me down, all the interviews. I do sixteen hours a week volunteering and nineteen hours a week of job searching for job seekers allowance. Last week, I was at the library writing an email, computers can be difficult for me, but a volunteer here showed me how to attach my CV and when I was at the library I put the CV into the email and it was great. It was so good, ‘I did it!’
I congratulate her on her computer literacy breakthrough and say that unemployment sounds like hard work. I ask her what she is hoping for, looking into the future.
I hope for a permanent job, not temporary work, I turned down a job at Sainsburys, a six-month fixed contract. I want something more secure, permanent.
She goes on to talk about her Methodist father and Church of England mother and reading psalms in church as a child. She’s now an intermittent member of a charismatic evangelical church in the Durham area, when time allows.
Evidently, Jane has aspired to live a selfless life for others. And what she has found, over the last two and a half years, is that that kind of life is not perceived to be deserving of trust or worthy of decent financial renumeration. The most basic contention of this book is that food banks sit at the junction of two roads which are orientated in opposite directions. One of these roads is primarily about profits and it sees people and nature as ‘resources’ or raw materials amenable to the realising of its own ambitions. The second road, less prominent but always present, is walked by those who believe that the point of life is to love and care for those who populate this shared planet. It is, therefore, primarily concerned with understanding how we participate in each other and the world around us. In this book, the name given to the first road is ‘neoliberalism’ and to the second ‘participation’, a route which is explored and defended through the discipline of Christian theology. The problems Britain faces around food, work and ecology are multifaceted and will require the resources of many different traditions to be resolved adequately. My hope is that this book will clarify one small contribution to that general task from one particular reading of the Christian tradition. And that, in doing so, it will add to the realisation of a politics, an economics, and a society in which people like Jane are perceived to be of infinite value and their discrediting is seen to be, as it really is, a denaturing of our very selves.
There is enough food for everybody but not everybody is getting enough. Since the great recession of 2008, the number of food banks in the United Kingdom and the number of people using them have grown exponentially. The first UK food bank was started in the year 2000 and now there are around 2000 of them alongside the legacy of soup kitchens, community cafes and breakfast clubs bequeathed to the people of the UK by its complex history of inequality and philanthropic generosity. The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank franchise in the country, has seen an increase in use from 68,486 food parcels in 2010-11 to 1.6 million parcels in 2018-19.
This growth has not gone unnoticed. The dominant political power in the UK over the last ten years, the centre-right Conservative Party, had consistently argued that the cause of increased food bank usage is not the reduction in local and national Government welfare spending or a lack of stable work that pays well but bad life choices and the increased availability of free food. Senior Conservatives, like Ian Duncan Smith MP and Lord Freud, have defended the idea that food bank usage is a supply driven problem. Combined with a moralised discourse about who deserves benefits, the need to reduce the welfare bill (given the oft repeated claim that ‘the centre-left Labour Party’s was profligate in office’), the increased numbers in employment, and support from large parts of the media and general public, they have been very successful in defending their position over the last seven or eight years.
On the other side, the Trussell Trust have consistently claimed that there is a tight link between welfare benefits and food bank use using data collected from their service users and, along with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger (APPG), have pointed to increased food prices, real term benefit cuts and low/stagnant wages aggravated by ‘life shocks’ as the prime drivers of increased food bank use. In this the Trussell Trust have received support from the UK’s academic and religious communities, along with parts of the civil service. From the very extensive Emergency Use Only in 2014 which found that for ‘between half and two thirds of the people included in the research the immediate income crisis was linked to the operation of the benefits system’ to Rachel Loopstera and Doireann Lalor’s Financial Insecurity, Food Insecurity, and Disability which says that 70% of all people at the food bank were on a form of state benefits, research commissioned by the food aid sector has consistently argued that real term benefit cuts and recent welfare reforms have caused hardship for many.
In 2013, the Trussell Trust’s Chief Executive Chris Mould said that ‘the reality is that there is a clear link between benefit delays or changes and people turning to food banks’, as the charity became increasingly desperate for a reversal of the politics of austerity imposed by the Coalition Government. Following on from Mould’s comments, it later emerged that a senior aid to Ian Duncan Smith, the then Minister for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), had threatened the Trussell Trust with being shut down for politicising poverty and that the Trussell Trust decided to be less vocal about food poverty in the light of this possibility. In Breadline Britain, the academics Joanna Mack and Stewart Lansley give their summary of the current situation by saying that
the growth of food poverty, while fuelled by the impact of the downturn and, in particular, the Government’s benefit reforms, has not just suddenly emerged. At root, it stems from heightened levels of impoverishment and a steady rise in social and economic risk… Britain has turned, steadily, into a more brittle and a more fiercely competitive society. A number of trends – from the move from an industrial to a service-based economy and the much greater freedom given to markets, to the impact of globalisation and new technology – have increased levels of insecurity. More chase fewer decent jobs and homes; personal and family incomes have become more volatile; family break-ups are more common; and social support networks are more atomised.
Mack and Lansley’s comments have corollaries in the academic communities that study food poverty. After two years volunteering at a food bank in the north east of England, Kayleigh Garthwaite concludes her book Hunger Pains by saying that
we have seen how food bank use is growing, due to static incomes, rising living costs, low pay, fuel poverty, debt and other complicated problems related to welfare reform. Added to that is the relentless ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ dialogue that surrounds people on low incomes, eroding any last scraps of dignity they may have left. As a result of this, people at the sharp end are mostly existing, not living, and this unsurprisingly leads to stigma, shame and embarrassment for many who are desperately trying to make ends meet.
She says that there would be no need for food banks ‘if it weren’t for the harsh benefits sanctions, precarious, low-paid jobs, and administrative delays that leave families without money for weeks on end.’ Former professor Elizabeth Dowler writes in her essay ‘Food Banks and Food Justice in “Austerity Britain”’ in First World Hunger Revisited that
while the need grows for UK food policies which take account of environmental, economic and social sustainability, the policy space and opportunities to focus on structural determinants of improving access for all to healthy, low-impact, affordable diets, seem more remote than ever. Individualized ‘informed choice’ has largely been reinstated, with the state’s role merely a light-touch regulation of the food supply and retail sectors, rather than wages or benefits in relation to the cost of food.
The Canadian professor of social work, Graham Riches says that food banks in the UK are ‘a more recent phenomenon largely driven by the Great Recession of 2008, austerity budgets and punitive welfare sanctions.’ Like Dowler, Riches says that his desire for ‘poverty reduction and fair income distribution informed by the right to food is inspired more by hope than any beckoning commitment by Governments to food and social justice.’ With ‘risks’ growing and ‘few friends in the press, in corporate Britain, or in Government, and largely sidelined by the Labour party in its search for Middle England voters, the poor have – all too often – come to rely on the church, charities and pressure groups to make their case, by offering a collective voice and a corrective, if small, to the gradual erosion of effective countervailing power in Britain. This is hardly new.’
Part of the complexity of food banks and their growth is that food banks sit at the cross-road of religious, political, and economic forces. In order to plot a path through this contested terrain, I focus especially on Lansley and Mack’s comments about the growth of ‘risk’ or, as other commentators have called it, ‘precariousness’. What does this term mean and why does it deserve to be highlighted? The term precariousness has been used in late twentieth and twenty-first century sociology to talk about labour insecurity and the kind of economy and society which followed Fordism (nineteenth century industrial, factory based manufacture which was progressively outsourced to Asia, Africa and South America over the course of the twentieth century, or automated) and is currently dominant in Europe and North America. Partly, the term is interesting because it is ambiguous: carrying both the common desire for flexibility and control over one’s career which was inhibited by Fordist modes of production, while also giving confidence to businesses that they could create jobs in times of growth without the risk of insolvency if the market took a downturn, and describing the growth of short term or zero hour contracts, unstable or unreliable work and a reduced social safety net. The political theorist Isabell Lorey catches not just the economics but the experience of precariousness when she says in State of Insecurity: Government of the precarious that
The many precarious are dispersed both in relations of production and through diverse modes of production, which absorb and engender subjectivities, extend their economic exploitation, and multiply identities and work places. It is not only work that is precarious and dispersed, but life itself. In all their differences, the precarious tend to be isolated and individualized, because they do short-term jobs, get by from project to project, and often fall through collective social-security systems. There are no lobbies or forms of representations for the diverse precarious.
As the late social critic Mark Fisher noted in Capitalist Realism, a significant part of why neoliberalism successfully followed Fordism was that it managed to incorporate workers’ demands for more freedom and choice in how to sell one’s labour, but that at the same time what was strengthened in this pact was the logic, ability and importance of selling one’s labour in the first place.Fordism was stifling and sexist (the male breadwinner, the female housewife) and neoliberalism built on and partially resolved these frustrations as it came to assume its position at the political and economic apex. Like Lorey, Fisher goes on to link economics and experience. He says that instead of the stable antagonisms of the factory period (workers vs bosses) conflict has been individualised and internalised in neoliberalism. The struggle today is against oneself; to get the next project, secure the necessary funding, entrepreneurialise oneself, build an attractive CV and online presence, disassociate oneself from people, places or actions in one’s past which might hold back one’s future, always present an appealing public profile.
The experience of precariousness is pronounced in the lives of food bank users, present in the lives of many more, and has tight links to the history, role and remit of Government. Lorey goes on from talking about precariousness as ‘living with the unforeseeable, with contingency’ to discuss the kind of Government appropriate to our neoliberal economy. In a labour selling economy, the Government has to balance two agendas. On the one hand, ‘in the course of dismantling and remodeling of the welfare state and the rights associated with it, a form of Government is established that is based on the greatest possible insecurity, promoted by proclaiming the alleged absence of alternatives.' I.e, the Government must minimise or actively remove anything that inhibits people from selling their labour at the lowest possible price, whether this be social security, environmental protections or traditional cultures which promote or sustain non-commodifiable modes of living (religious traditions which say that work should be ‘dignified’ for example, along with forms of education, reproductive labour and even trade union actions can all be seen as problematic in this sense) and it does so by saying that it has to. On the other hand, the Government cannot push insecurity and competition so far that the social order is fundamentally destabilised: ‘the way that precaritisation has become an instrument of Government also means that its extent must not pass a certain threshold such that it seriously endangers the existing order: in particular, it must not lead to insurrection.' Lorey concludes quite succinctly that ‘managing this threshold is what makes up the art of governing today.’
Even this cursory engagement with the concept of precariousness discloses a series of factors which can illuminate the food bank phenomena and the conversation I have sketched about individual choice, poverty and Governmental responsibility. Food bank users often move in an out of work and face difficult transition periods. They lead precarious lives. This competitive work environment is tiring mentally and physically and these ailments are reported frequently at food banks and to food bank researchers. The degree to which this economy has cognitive downsides can be seen in the rising numbers of GPs (to their own great frustration) proscribing anti-depressants to the poor; British society drugs its most vulnerable populations into compliance and conformity.
Dr Charles Roding Pemberton is a lecturer in political theology at Durham University.