Friday, 21 February 2014

Take, Eat...

The letter printed today in the Mirror and signed by 27 bishops, Methodist and Quaker leaders here reflects fairly, I think, experience on the ground. Anyone who helps at a foodbank will know that demand seems to be increasing. Those who are there regularly  are sometimes shocked by the stories they hear which are more reminiscent of Charles Dickens' portrayal of urban poverty than anything you would expect to find in 21st century towns and cities. Rural parts of the UK are also affected and poverty there is often exacerbated by lack of access to transport which is, of course, itself relatively expensive to afford.

The bishops' letter doesn't reflect the complexity of the situation. As the DEFRA report Household Food Security in the UK produced last June shows, the causes of poverty and sudden inability to meet the living costs of your family are multi-faceted. Contributory factors include job loss, job irregularity, sudden unexpected bills, withdrawal of of delay in receiving benefits (often without warning and time to plan), late payment of entitlements of various kinds. 

It would be helpful if the government was more transparent about what it is actually trying to achieve through reduction of welfare provision so that we know what we are up against. If it is true that they are actually prepared to push half a million people into hunger in order to force a situation where 'work pays' then honesty about their policy (much as I would abhor it) would help the voluntary sector to organise itself to cope. Church leaders are well placed to play an active part in doing this. If, however, the government is really unaware of the havoc its policies on welfare reform are causing, then serious re-education of MPs and Ministers is urgently needed. Church leaders are well placed to point this out and facilitate meetings.

Lurking behind all the party political point-scoring and the dubious analyses of causation is, I believe, a much more fundamental issue which, again, is very much the churches' territory. Food has become a scandalous problem in our society. It is a spiritual issue as well as a practical, political and economic one. How have we created an economy where we grow so little of what we eat, we pay farmers not to produce, we underpay some farmers for what they do produce and we allow supermarkets to control the markets and, worse, to scrap prodigious quantities of food every day? How have we become a society where sharing food is so ridiculously complicated? Families don't eat together, let alone regularly and normatively invite neighbours in to share food. Health and safety regulations mean that left over food cannot be shared and the ability to cook simple, cheap nutritious food from raw ingredients is almost dying out.

In some societies, when there is a shortage of food, people come together to cook and to eat. Preparing and consuming our daily intake of food is now such a privatised and individualised activity in the UK that we are finding it difficult to organise ourselves effectively when sections of society don't have enough to eat. I recently visited a home where there was food from the foodbank on the counter in the kitchen. The family, demoralised by anxiety and depression, didn't have the means to heat it or, really, the knowledge to make it appetising for the children. Next door, their neighbours were having similar problems.  

We have so lost the values that support social cohesion that we are slowly undermining our ability to do the fundamental thing of eating together, whether as a family or as a community, in times of stress and difficulty. This is a deep moral dis-ease. It is not by accident that a meal, the eucharist,  is at the heart of the Christian faith and the church's existence. To eat together, to share, not only food, but social contact is what makes us human in the image of God. What are we doing to ourselves when neighbours go hungry, millions eat alone and the answer to hunger is to hand out tins and packets (I'm not belittling the importance of this, but it is somehow a rather sterile action speaking of utility more than emapthetic compassion and the goodness of God's natural provision.) 

Last October, I wrote a post called 'End Go-it-alone Eating' here  At the time, I wasn't as aware as I now am of the crisis in food poverty. I was thinking more of general sharing and of our personal experience in North Yorkshire and Greece. But I think what I said captures the nature of the deep crisis we have over food - producing serious hunger in one of the most affluent countries on the globe.

Will you join me and thousands, or hopefully millions, of others in the End Hunger Fast this Lent? Follow the link to read about it on their website or follow them on twitter @EndHungerFast 

And I don't often say this, but well done the Mirror!  


  1. Fareshare (we have a branch in Leicester) now encourage churches and community groups to provide "community feeding" - lunch clubs, breakfast clubs, drop-ins with food etc. - rather than handing out individual food parcels, as a more effective way of ensuring that people are actually fed. This is not to denigrate the work of other foodbanks, but simply what they have found to be an effective way of addressing both food poverty and waste.

  2. Sounds very good - combination of giving food and inviting people to share it. Some of the Asian communities I've worked in very good at this.