Food banks: a return to Dickens?

Photograph from Durham University Economics Journal

Photograph from Durham University Economics Journal

“So I’ll cook a victoria sponge and some shortbread,” I concluded decisively.

Felix looked extremely hopeful.

“Remind me why you’re doing it, Mum?” he said.

“We’re having a cake sale at work,” I said. “But instead of paying money for the cakes, the organisers are asking everyone to bring in something to go to the local food bank.”

“What sort of things would people bring?” my son asked curiously.

“Things from the cupboard: sugar, tins, dried milk, beans, you know.”

Incredulousness hung like a very fine vapour in the air.

Felix thought for  very long time. “Let me get this straight,” he said eventually. “I bring in some tin from the cupboard and give it to them, and they will give me a piece of cake?”

To a nine year old, it’s not fair exchange. I had visions of Felix emptying the cupboards and pottering off to the sale with a trailer packed full of cake-currency.

His donations would be well used, if he did. It is unsettling hearing just who is being forced to use the food banks these days. People with jobs; a single mother whose maternity leave pay did not allow her to buy what she needed for her baby. The little pair were living on a packet of rice until she was referred – as all users of the food banks are -by recognised agencies.

It is just possible that the Prime Minister of England is proud of the part the charitable food banks are playing in the current economic downturn. It is a prime example of a pet project of his.

David Cameron dubbed it “The Big Society’.

You give communities more powers, and encourage people to take more of an active role in them. You support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises. And the third sector begins to run the welfare show.

Cameron persuaded all the big banks to fill the coffers of The Big Society bank to the tune of £200 million. He appoInted a Big Society Tsar. It was all very important.That was in 2010.

Problem is, then swingeing government cuts hit the charities. One of the four pilot areas, Liverpool, resigned from the project in disgust. Then the Tsar gave in his notice.

Chief Executive of the UK Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, Sir Steven Bubb, said the whole thing was a wreck.

Charities being charities, they have soldiered on. But there are warnings that these banks could become ‘institutionalised’ in the same way that they were in Dickensian times.

Just recently, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University and a former adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the World Health Organisation, told the Independent newspaper: “The morals and motives of people who work in food banks are honourable, but it’s a short-term fix, and the problem is that it’s getting institutionalised and the politicians are buying it.”

“There ought to be a very big political debate about food banks,” he added. ” It should be a sign of shame that the sixth-richest economy on the planet has people who are essentially retreating to a Dickensian world. It’s shocking how quickly it’s been normalised.”

So is The Big Society just a thin veil for a return to Victorian standards?

Let us, to close, just remind ourselves what those standards were through the eyes of a wizened old skinflint.

” Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”


32 thoughts on “Food banks: a return to Dickens?

  1. My church has just become a referring agency. We are appalled at the need for food banks, but want to help.

    But you have to wonder, by filling the gap, do we compound the problem? If someone else plugs the hole, why should the government worry? But we can’t stand by, either.

    1. The problem is that the hole doesn’t get plugged, so to speak. Instead it is an excuse for governments to shake off their social responsibility and keep your taxes for themselves.

    2. It’s a dilemma we should not have to face, you’re right. We have to help but the government will just sit back and think everything is better than it is if we do. Hanged if we do, hanged if we don’t….

  2. Now that’s what I admire- your ability to show us your anger without being ranty. I am adding that skill to my ‘must learn’ list.
    Well said, Kate.

  3. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    i suspect that even in UK most aid doesn’t really end up where it is truly needed. As in Africa, where what is meant for starving millions actually feeds a minority of fat cats.

  4. The system is busted.
    Life in many respects is closer to Dystopia than Utopia:

    People on food stamps buy booze and Kool-Aid instead of fruit and veggies.
    People on welfare don’t have an incentive to return to work.
    Money contributed to charities ends up in the bloated salaries of overpaid execs.
    Politicians are corrupt, selling themselves to the highest bidder.

    As Scrooge would say, “I’ll retire to Bedlam.”

    1. Our food banks are frequented by people in work, Nancy, who have to pay for their houses and bills and there’s no money left to pay food. It’s topsy turvey. Busted, as you say.

  5. Quite a conundrum, isn’t it Kate?

    I sat for several years on the board of a local consortium of churches, schools, police, and such who provide temporary emergency aid to those in need. A food bank as well a vouchers for heating, electricity, car repair, etc. are available. I’m no longer on that board, but, am told that there has been a marked increase of those seeking assistance. Those I know who work with the clients tell me that the need has grown drastically, and they now see their own neighbors come in seeking emergency aid. This is in a well healed suburb.

    In our area, food stamps cannot be used to buy liquor or cigarettes. They also cannot be used for paper products, toothpaste, sanitary products, kleenex. It is the goodness of others that provides these things. Right now, I have an enormous case of Kleenex tissues that someone passed on to me to bring in to the food bank.

    Thank you for this post, Kate.

  6. I think we have a real disconnect in America, too. Through the years I’ve been very active in support roles at food banks, homeless agencies and a variety of efforts. I’ve had friends seriously need food to feed their families and money to keep the lights on. I’ve cried with frustration at the way our Congress can spend years battling over power and not pay anything but lip service to caring about hunger in America. I could go on and on, but there isn’t one person living in the real world (not Washington) who doesn’t know this is true.

    In high school I wrote a paper about “Dickens, the Social Reformer.” I picked the topic on my own because I was so caught up in his novels and what I was learning about the history of the poor and disaffected –his social teachings–along the way. I enjoy your conversations about political and social conflict and reform in Britain…share anytime. I learn a lot! 🙂

    1. Thank Debra, it is interesting – but sobering – to learn from all of you on that side of the pond what the situation is there. Dickens gets branded with the ‘Dickensian conditions’ label but his writings and works on the subject really were just ground breaking, weren’t they?

  7. Everything old is new again. How nice that Cameron is proud of these food banks. If only they weren’t necessary in the first place. Same kind of thing is happening across the pond, and it’s so sad.

  8. Here in Texas, we have more non-medically-insured people, especially children, in the United States. Our schools are being starved of money. Our politicians believe in guns, lots of guns, no taxes, no money for family planning, no unions, and certainly no teaching of evolution. Food banks are alive and well here. There is a local program in the town where I live that is providing food so “under nourished” school children can have something to eat at home on the weekends. Hey, but we’re Number One!

  9. Kate, we are in the Twenty-First Century, aren’t we? I’m baffled by all of this unbalanced financial mess we seem to be in right now. Football clubs still pay millions for oiks with attitude, whilst normal people can’t even get the minimum amount of help they need for food. Sigh. They had money troubles back in the Seventeenth Century, but I bet they had better access to food back then than today. Good job I’m not political, Kate, I tells ya!
    Great post by the way, and I hope Felix got his cake!

  10. It took a long time for my Dad to realise things were returning what he had known as a child, growing up in the 1930s. He found it hard to accept that children were going hungry just as he had gone hungry;lacked clothing and shoes – like he had. Even as late as Christmas, he had maintained that the 1930s could never return Our last visit saw his attitude had (thankfully) changed. He’s damning of the those administering a Welfare State not fit for purpose! He is appalled that people who have, will still not return a fair portion for the welfare of all and that he is having to contribute to food banks because the State;s desire for cost cutting is hitting those who need our help the most. He is not yet channelling Aneurin Bevan, but he has – at last – seen that we cannot stand by and let this continue.

  11. I am so extremely tired of politicians who seem to be completely in the pockets of big business and not caring about the citizens in their own country.

    I truly believe the world is in dire need of a huge revolution, giving humanity more recognition than money!

  12. Great post Kate. So many people on both sides of the pond are either unemployed or underemployed. If I were to lose my job, at my age and with my mediocre skills, I’d probably have an impossible time finding another. It’s so hard to make a living wage in this economy when there are fewer and fewer decent jobs. Meanwhile, as the middle class struggles to make ends meet, the 1% are continuing to do very well. It’s such a skewed world that we live in.

  13. Governments are essentially the same everywhere! I have often wondered why the private sector/big business houses can’t be roped in to handle problems such as these, in exchange for perhaps tax subsidies. Hubby is skeptical….thinks they are bigger crooks and are happy with the status quo.

  14. Ah okay – will the return to return to Victorian standards mean new and improved debtors prisons? might keep a few naughty bankers out of everyone’s hair?

  15. Such a deep and important issue Kate. My boys and I are off to pack food boxes at the food bank this morning. Hunger, the right to good food, food waste, food deserts, the food in food pantries – all passionate issues for me. I have looked this morning for a link to Kimberly Lord Stewart’s writing (no luck). She is a food writer who documented her health while eating from a food pantry. It’s award winning journalism and also a frightening tale.

  16. Our U.S. Postal Service just had a food drive. We contributed cans of soup and boxes of pasta. It’s sad that so many are in need, but it’s wonderful to know that people are pitching in to help. (Our church also collects food once a month and distributes it to a food bank.)

    Your quotes from Scrooge are chilling. There are too many who are well off and think nothing of those who are barely scraping by. Very sad.

  17. food banks are a shame to our nation, just one of the many things this old lady wishes she had not had live to see happening. For goodness sake we live in the 21st century and life should have improved from when I was young. The kindness and love of strangers is to be applauded and thank goodness we still have those who care, but, it is not the job of charities to feed the citizens of any nation There is enough food in the world to feed everyone – it is those with power and control who should rot in hell – I am too old to be wasting any sympathy for the wrong doers I’m afraid Kate:)

    good post – everyone needs to be reminded of the constant failure (and I’m being kind in my choice of words!) of politicians to serve others (it’s their job) as opposed to themselves

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