The debate about food banks bothers me. It’s a very emotional subject, rightly so, but there are aspects of the whole food bank subject that make me uncomfortable; and not just because people are suffering.
The fact that we obviously need food banks is a very sad indictment on what we consider a modern, civilised society. But I frequently of late, sit and wonder about why so many need them. After all, we’re one of the richest countries in the world and even the poorest of people in our society have greater access to state support than in countries where the majority of the world’s population live.
It seems wrong that we are supporting people, in one of the most humbling ways possible, because we failed, despite our wealth, to provide them with the knowledge to protect themselves from such humiliation. Over the last two hundred years, we became one of the richest countries on Earth, and yet we’ve these relatively wealthy people using food banks. And before my “relatively wealthy people” provokes shouts of anger, just remember that the people using food banks have access to resources that the majority of people in our world would kill for: a roof over their head; clean, running water; shelter from the weather, the NHS, a benefits system. And of course we should expect such things; after all, we’re one of the richest countries in the world.
There’s no doubt that our relative wealth increased at an incredible rate during the twentieth century. But recessions regularly interrupt that seemingly-inexorable rise and it must surely make you wonder if these recessions each happened because we’d grown used to wealth beyond our means; sort of grown a bit faster than we should have done and were forced to take a breather, so to speak.
That’d be all nice and logical and relatively painless if it wasn’t for the fact that some people can afford the downturn in rise in growth while others, in an unequal society, are too close to the lower edge of the comfort zone to avoid trouble.
It’s at times like recession that we realise how much we’ve got used to the luxuries of modern life, including our food. Those that can afford it, dig into their savings or cut down here and there and continue feeding themselves at home the same as ever. But those that don’t have that cushion suddenly need to find another way. For instance, they could change the way they acquire food and start buying, cooking and eating like most people had to during and just after the second world war; making the money they’ve got go that much further. But, the trouble is, if they don’t know how to do that, they have to resort to charity in the form of food banks.
As it’s a fact that, as a percentage of our population, fewer people cook in the UK than ever before, shouldn’t that lack of ability to feed themselves more cost-effectively be a cause of national shame? Surely, if more people had been taught to cook, fewer people would need to resort to receiving cans of food from voluntary bodies?
Of course it’s not the fault of those who find themselves in such a position. But it surely is the fault of successive governments, of both red and blue colours, to allow people to go through life without being educated in one of the most essential skills; that of being able to cook and feed themselves and their families.
We should hang our collective heads in shame and wonder at the blindness of political ideology that allowed ourselves to get into such a situation.
And the answer to this mess? I don’t know what it is, but I’d have thought any right-thinking person would like to know all the facts before condemning or supporting food banks.
Previously published in The Northern Echo