Three years ago I helped set up a community kitchen in Liverpool. Inspired by Latin American models, it would be an alternative to that North American import the food bank. Instead, the community kitchen set out to be a place where people could come to combat loneliness while cooking and eating healthily together.
Why not set up a food bank? Well, for me, food banks are great at giving people emergency food but, in terms of the bigger picture, something of a sinister development. It’s no coincidence that food banks have emerged at the very time that government is removing the social safety net. With referrals to food banks churned out by social workers, the police and GPs, the state is passing on its responsibility to the voluntary sector. Alongside this, there’s the re-emergence of Victorian notions of the “deserving poor”.
In the new “Big Society” I certainly don’t want to play the Lord Bountiful, doling out food to stigmatised recipients. Instead I wanted to empower people.
Addressing food poverty in a non-profit way is eminently possible. Our community kitchen is independent and so avoids the fees charged by food bank networks such as the Trussell Trust and FareShare. These companies’ media monopoly on “food poverty” obscures the alternative: doing it for free. All you need is the numbers of a few local supermarket managers and a network of good people who don’t want to make a quick buck from a social problem. And yet charitable food provision, my efforts included, is symptomatic of the problem and not a solution. While it is undesirable enough that growth organisations are performing the state’s proper role in ensuring people’s right to food, at least they’re preferable to the sharp businessmen who eye “food poverty” as the latest marketplace ripe for exploitation.
I’m not referring here to the publicity benefits for supermarket giants in plonking food bank donation bins at their doors (while simultaneously pursuing prosecutions against people for rummaging in their bins) but rather the emerging legion of smaller businesses for whom “food poverty” is now also a useful sales technique.
Take, for example, a company local to me that has started promising customers at hipster-oriented food fairs that for every item purchased from their overpriced street food menu they will “donate one meal for free to a family facing food poverty”.
How has this come to pass? Look no further than the gaping hole where there should be a semblance of state regulation of this emergent marketplace; to the absence of a food security minister; to the lack of proper data collection on this problem by the ONS. In the absence of government doing its bit, a marketplace has emerged in food poverty.
When it comes down to it, poverty drives food poverty. If we allow “food poverty” to further expand as a marketplace, then we separate it from poverty itself. And this, it seems, is exactly what the government wants. Why?
Because it takes the pressure off it, and its right to ensure people eat well.
Dr Bryce Evans is senior lecturer in history, Liverpool Hope University