The other night I was invited over to dinner by my parents, who – as they often do – treated this as their “dine out” night (they’re both retired and can afford to treat themselves to a meal out each week) and ordered a vegetarian curryfest from their favourite Indian takeaway.
As they often do, they ordered lavishly – and the leftovers were packed up to go home with me. I was walking down the hill to the bus stop, with the fragrant bag in my hand, when I noticed a man sitting against the wall with a blanket wrapped round him, having a smoke. Now, I like curry, but generally don’t eat it two nights running: and the food in the bag had never been taken out of the takeaway cartons. It was safe enough to share. So I asked the man if he’d like a curry, and when he said yes, handed him the bag, and went on my way. It wasn’t exactly generous of me (though I hope he enjoyed it) and was classically helpful/unhelpful: a good meal for a night for one homeless person, isn’t resolving the problem of people going to bed hungry.
Do you want to give food? Add up its retail price. Take that money out of your wallet. Flush 90% of it down the toilet. Send the food bank the rest. You’re still helping more than if you gave the food.
Ignorance may be partly to blame. Not everyone knows that food banks do best with cash. On hearing it, many will give differently. But some will rationalize, and get indignant… and open their pantries yet again. And in so doing, the givers of food signal to themselves and others that they are the sorts who give food. But they’re not doing as much good as they might. (Why do food banks accept it? Because a tiny, inefficient help is better than no help whatsoever. What are they going to do, turn you away?)
I still believe this to be true. If you can afford to give, give the money you would have spent on food.
(Though it is always worthwhile, before making any significant donation to a charity, to ask them what they’d prefer.)
Besides the Trussell Trust foodbanks, in Edinburgh The Rock Trust works with homeless 16-25 year olds. They’re also on Facebook. The Edinburgh Access Practice provides healthcare services to homeless people. The Red Cross is launching emergency food aid for the UK hungry this winter: Oxfam has been working on poverty in the UK for years.
The Trussell Trust provides a shopping list of things to buy at a supermarket that they will then distribute (more efficient than randomly opening your store cupboard): but, as I noted last year, supermarket employees may themselves be on benefits because their employer is paying them little or nothing.
Oxfam’s Director of UK Poverty, Chris Johnes warned last year:
“Despite the Government’s rhetoric about making work pay, having a job is no longer necessarily enough to lift someone out of poverty; more working age adults in poverty now live in working households than in workless ones. The Government is justifying huge cuts to welfare support for people on low incomes by saying this will incentivise work, but there simply aren’t enough decent jobs available.”
We worked out that with the food we had in the house, if we were careful, we could feed the children breakfast, lunch and dinner for four days. This would mean me and Skint Mum missing out on “proper” dinner a couple of times but we were OK with that.
So that left us with three days’ worth of food to purchase and sort out nappies. It was getting late and we were both emotionally shattered so we went to bed.
I didn’t sleep much that night. It was 2am when I last looked at the time. Lots of things going through my mind.
The next morning Skint Mum left for work and D left for school, leaving me and the youngest to go to the shops and try to make our £6.20 stretch as far as possible.
But Skint Dad’s family – with one parent in work – wouldn’t qualify for help from a foodbank.
As A Girl Called Jack told the Conservative Party conference at the beginning of the month*, in order to be allowed to claim food from a food bank:
The reality is that you need to be identified as being in need, by a social worker, a health visitor, a child care provider, your doctor. Someone needs to recognise that without their intervention, your family are going to go hungry. They direct you to a food bank for help. A lot of people don’t go, because of the shame and the stigma attached to queuing up outside a community centre to beg for food. Because I’ll tell you now, even after months of attending, it feels like begging. No matter how kind the volunteers, how discreet the carrier bags, you have to look someone in the face who knows that you are desperate and not coping and that your life is falling apart.
You pledged, the Tories, to continue the Labour Party’s aim to end child poverty by the year 2020. Far from ending, three years in, the number of children in poverty has leapt by 300,000.
Children are going to school hungry. Supermarkets encouraging people to buy for food banks won’t help that. (The Greggs Foundation breakfast club scheme, by contrast, does actually provide breakfast.)
Criticism was lodged against the Trussell Trust for its links with the Conservative party, but earlier this month the charity wrote to David Cameron to raise the issue of the quick-growing need for their services as the Conservative/LibDem onslaught on welfare intensifies:
Over 350,000 people received three days’ emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks between April and September 2013, triple the numbers helped in the same period last year. The Trussell Trust says that UK hunger is getting worse and the charity is calling for an inquiry into the causes of UK food poverty and the consequent surge in foodbank usage.
‘We said in April that the increasing numbers of people turning to foodbanks should be a wake-up call to the nation, but there has been no policy response and the situation is getting worse. The level of food poverty in the UK is not acceptable. It’s scandalous and it is causing deep distress to thousands of people. The time has come for an official and in depth inquiry into the causes of food poverty and the consequent rise in the usage of foodbanks. As a nation we need to accept that something is wrong and that we need to act now to stop UK hunger getting worse.’
*(I doubt if Tory Party policy will change one iota because of that very powerful speech, though. Neither Labour nor Conservative are interested in improving the material situation of the poorest, LibDems just want to be in government, and the SNP are focused on the referendum. So long as polling tells the political parties that stamping on the poorest is a vote-gainer, so long will they stamp.)