First published in Huffington Post
If you believe the headlines people are going hungry in Britain today. The only reason they are not starving to death is because soup kitchens, food banks and other charitable schemes are springing up to serve those in most desperate need. Indeed the numbers using food banks increased nearly three-fold last year on the previous year to more than 350,000 according to one charitable food provider determined to raise the nation’s awareness of the ‘hunger on our doorstep’. A consortium of charities has even accused the government of being in danger of breaching its obligations under the UN economic and social rights convention if it goes on cutting public services and benefits. According to Fareshare, an organisation that redistributes left-overs from supermarkets and other retailers, it is supporting more people than ever via a growing number of charities; and providing meals for an estimated 44,000 people a day (an increase of 16% on last year). Sainsbury’s alone has provided 3.2 million meals in the last two years. Which, given that the supposedly evil supermarkets are blamed for everything from failing farmers to the demise of the high street, may come as something of a surprise.
But scratch the surface a little beneath these shocking headlines and you might find you come to a rather different view. First of all you learn that part – probably a large part – of the rising demand for food banks etc is a consequence of welfare reform and the way benefits are being paid (or, indeed, not paid). With the abolition of the social fund on which the most desperate had previously relied, and an apparent reluctance on the part of the DWP and Jobcentres to pay them an advance on their benefits; they are being referred to local authorities, charities and food banks instead. All in the name of building the Big Society you understand. According to the Trussell Trust, one of the major food crisis charities, over half of the recipients of their food parcels did so because their benefits had been delayed, cut or stopped altogether. Indeed, this has been raised in parliament and even pointed out (albeit further down the page) by those who nevertheless claim that there exists something approaching Dickensian levels of poverty in Britain today. I know times are hard, with everything from food and fuel price hikes to high unemployment having a part to play, but even today’s poorest are not facing Hard Times!
And its not just Lefty-Liberal do-gooders twisting the facts to suit their anti-austerity agenda. The Tory/Liberal austerity-implementing government apparently feel compelled to invent food crises too. A few months ago agriculture minister David Heath made the bizarre World War II-citing claim that before too long we could be ‘digging for survival‘. Because we are dependent on imports for 40% of our food, so the logic goes, we are at risk of I know not what catastrophes that could make us dependent on hastily dug allotments. That we live in a modern world and depend for our comforts on the benefits of an international division of labour is, in reality, no bad thing. The notion that there is a big problem of food security – fueled by periodic scares about everything from terrorism and global warming, to there being too many people to feed, or too much horse in the food chain – is baseless. But it all adds to the fantasy of impending food-related doom.
That is not to say that there aren’t people facing great hardship and that this is not set to get significantly worse. With the annual rise in benefits to be no more than 1% a year from now on, an estimated 50,000 households expected to lose about £93 a week when the benefit cap is eventually rolled out; and 660,000 households seeing their benefit cut by around £14 a week with the introduction of the hated bedroom tax – things are clearly going to get much tougher for the poorest. Birmingham City Council, for instance, has mapped the miserable impact of welfare reform on some of its already hard-up residents. But the real shocker here is not that the poor are going hungry – they’re not. It’s that people are living in a seemingly permanent dependency on the state and on the no-less dependent charity sector, without anybody apparently able to challenge the view that they are anything more than pitiable creatures barely able to feed themselves. The political class are utterly clueless with not the first idea about how they might do something about the economic crisis, other than cutting away at public expenditure. And campaigners, instead of holding them to account, prefer patronising the supposed victims as a vulnerable bunch of inadequates.