Last week I was sent a link to two blogs about food banks, both on highly reputable websites. As co-ordinator of JPIT’s work on this subject the sender thought, rightly, I’d be interested.
Indeed, my heart leapt when I saw the title of one – by Katie Hopkins – was ‘The Real Reason Food Banks Have Trebled’. Like many, I’ve being saying for a long time we need some robust research into what’s behind the ever-increasing demand for food banks, so I looked forward to studying what the writer had to say.
Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the piece to be nothing but uninformed opinion and prejudice. Not a minute had been spent conducting serious investigation or first-hand interviews with food bank users or workers. Instead, just unattributed quotes from ‘a food bank user’ and ‘the agencies that issue vouchers’, and claims about people putting on ‘Oscar-winning performances’ to obtain free food and ‘playing the system’.
The conclusion drawn from all this carefully-garnered evidence? The growth in food banks is not due to more people being hungry but ‘largely because we are feeding the dirty habits of people perfectly happy to live a life on the take.’
The other blog, by Edwina Currie, was slightly more measured but no better informed, even though the data the author needed was there if she’d looked. When it first appeared – before, to its credit, the website corrected it* – it described the Trussell Trust, which runs a food bank in Salisbury and provides heavy-duty support to more than 400 others, as a ‘tiny organisation [that] doesn’t run a single food bank [but] merely advises church and community groups on how to’. Other claims were that free food ‘helps support the black economy’ and ‘encourages more of what it seeks to relieve’, and that food banks put local shops out of business – why run a corner shop ‘if enough local residents get their groceries free’. Food banks also encourage people to stay on benefits which provide them with ‘far more than they might earn’.
Given the impact their pieces would have, one might have thought these writers would have checked the veracity of their claims and researched the issue beforehand. But such pieces are just part of a trend, highlighted by our report The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending comfortable myths about poverty, aimed at creating ever wider divisions in our society by promoting opinions over facts and myths over evidence.
One particularly depressing aspect of these pieces, and of many others on poverty and welfare, is the assumption they carry that the sort of people who use food banks are ‘not like us’ and we’ll never ‘be like them’. At the same time as I was reading the above pieces I received another article, this time recounting the story of a couple who had turned up at a food bank in the Midlands. It’s too long to relate in full here, but it traced their decline from hard-working farmers to homelessness and hunger via: a serious injury to the man leading his wife to give up work to care for him; two poor harvests leading to bankruptcy; hip and knee problems to the woman untreatable on the NHS due to her young age; and confusion about keeping up National Insurance payments for both parties.
Sadly this is not an unusual story, as people who staff food banks know only too well. Among the stories we hear are of working families on low incomes who encounter problems ‘when something goes wrong with the car or the kids need new shoes’; the young boy whose dad had lost his job and ‘who was going to school with no breakfast’; the lady ‘sent home from hospital to no food in the house and no-one to shop for her’.
If as much space were given to making known the real stories behind food bank use as to whipping up revulsion toward their users, then not only might we have a more truthful debate about what’s going on, we might also realise how vulnerable many of us are to a change in our circumstances.
And, if only for that reason, perhaps we might find the collective will to build a better society, one based on the Judaeo-Christian ethic of care for the widow and orphan and ‘the common good’.
To help promote informed debate about food banks and their use, JPIT has produced the ‘Faith in Foodbanks?’ resource pack for local churches to use. These are available to download free from http://jpit.uk/issues/poverty-and-inequality/#Foodbanks
Andrew Bradstock, Church and Society Secretary, United Reformed Church/JPIT
* The website also allowed the Trussell Trust to write a response, correcting what the Trust called the ‘inaccuracies and misleading statements’ in the original blog and pointing out that the writer had never spoken with them nor sought to verify any of her assertions with them.