Surplus Food Poverty

Surplus Food Poverty
Martin Sime


Surplus food is no solution to food poverty

At least I can agree with the headline of last week’s trenchant piece from the Poverty Alliance [see article here]. The rest is, however based on the false dichotomy that distributing surplus food is somehow to the detriment of the pursuit of more socially just solutions.   I’m happy to argue that for the foreseeable future we need to continue to do both.


We also need more debate about food poverty, food distribution and welfare in Scotland – these issues go to the very heart of some pretty big questions about the kind of social protections we ought to establish, the role of practical  community activism and how to realise the ambition to create a more equitable society.


So Edinburgh and Glasgow Councils have jointly “committed to eradicating poverty in our cities” but does anyone seriously believe that this is likely to happen? [see blog here]. Their laudable but rather jargon-laden plans mostly centre on what local government will do, but their assault on food banks and food distribution on the grounds that these might become too entrenched is both flawed and slightly sinister.   If more government was the answer then food poverty would not exist. 


For those who get caught up in such things, the General Election provided valuable insight into how some politicians have sought to address food poverty and the rise of food banks. Quite incredibly in my view, Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown promised to abolish food banks with the stroke of a pen and a cheque for £130million. Never mind that these are citizen-led, independent community organisations that have declined to take a penny from government. Let’s gloss over the facts about why food banks have grown and some rather right wing attitudes to welfare, scroungers and sanctions. Foodbanks are a blight on our society and we will get rid of them by dictat was the message.


Of course food poverty affects us on an emotional level. Hunger is offensive in such a rich country as ours and the idea that it is growing and affecting more and more people causes greater alarm than almost any other issue. The evidence that much of this hardship is being deliberately caused by Government economic policy and the unconstitutional actions of the Department of Work and Pensions did much to mobilise one side of the Referendum campaign. Whilst we may want to see this cruelty stop, more draconian welfare cuts are on the way.


Here’s a thought: instead of ranting about the risks of charity welfare, why don’t our politicians get right behind each and every initiative that people take to help their fellow citizens? Instead of vacuous municipal promises which can’t be kept, why not nurture, support and celebrate the role which ordinary people have played in meeting some basic human needs of those who have been failed by the state?   Is it landfill tax proceeds that have led them to discourage surplus food distribution, or simply a belief in big government? In just what circumstance is feeding hungry people unwelcome?


I am afraid that many on the left in Scotland have an essentially dysfunctional relationship with the state. Some attitudes have barely shifted since post-war welfarism: a benevolent state can make things better; we just need the right kind of government passing the right laws and policies. More public spending, more public services (and public servants) are the answer to most of our ills. No wonder we are forever disappointed! 


Instead of contempt we need to celebrate the things people do for themselves and each other. They may be modest in scale and starved of resources but community-led initiatives like Care and Repair, the Food Train, Community Transport and thousands of other initiatives are the very heart and soul of our country. They typically mobilise volunteers and provide human connections, for example to isolated elderly people.  Like the people who run our foodbanks, their motivations are practical and personal – good citizens doing something to help their fellow human beings.


We would be an altogether better place if, instead of trying to marginalise, bankrupt or replace such voluntary action with professional interventions; instead of tying us up in ludicrous risk management and competitive procurement strategies; we could recognise the value and values which underpin foodbanks and food distribution and the like and get behind them. It’s not a solution to food poverty but it surely isn’t part of the problem either.


One final thought, largely ignored by many in this debate, but perhaps the most important aspect of the growth of foodbanks – the supermarket collections which confront the public with the stark realities of life on the breadline. They make hunger everyone’s business and I for one want them to carry on doing that for as long as is necessary.