Food Inglorious Food: or how our government continues to fail the poorest.

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Next week I will be visiting The Gatehouse in Bury St Edmunds, a local food bank to explore how they are planning for the influx of extra users during the Winter, a time of greater poverty due to the competing needs of heating the home versus feeding those that live in it. In the meantime, here’s a reminder that the need for food banks continues as does the need for us to support them. Please donate- links and information as to how can be found at the end of this article. 

The amount of people using food banks continues to rise despite the much heralded ‘economic recovery’, trotted out by the government in an attempt to deter us from believing what we see with our own eyes. The cost of living coupled with insecure work contracts and slashed benefits that fail to keep pace with the demands on our wallets have conspired to send even those in full time work in search of their nearest food bank, a fact the government would like to obscure because it contradicts the ugly message that to work is to reach the economic promised land. Indeed, the inability of people to feed themselves adequately has been described as a breach of international law by violating the human right to food by a coalition of anti-poverty charities, including the Trussell Trust. who have described the Government as “increasingly harsh” in its use of sanctions against people attempting to claim benefits. Half of those referred to food banks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes with 8 out of 10 of food banks seeing more cases relating to benefit sanctions over the past year. Tougher punishments for those on jobseeker’s allowance were introduced by the Coalition last October (2013) raising the minimum sanction from one to four weeks. Benefits can now be stopped for up to three years.

The latest figures from The Trussell Trust show that in 2014, a total of 913,138 people were given three days supply of emergency food compared to 346,992 between 2012- 2013, 423 food banks have been launched and 8318 thousand tonnes of food was donated to food banks over the previous year.

The Living Wage Campaign works hard to raise awareness of the problems faced by those in low paid employment citing a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that claims there are more working families living in poverty in the UK than non-working families for the first time since the birth of the welfare state. The JRF attributes this to a sustained fall in the standard of living, causing average incomes to fall by 8% since the 2008 peak and around 2 million people to live on an income that would be considered below the poverty line back in 2008. Working age adults without children form the largest group in poverty with 4.7 million people falling into this category and plummeting incomes over the last few years erasing all the gains previously made.

Despite a strong safety net being deemed vital in ensuring social mobility across all age groups, government cuts via the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and other housing benefit changes, ESA sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims cause further harm to those who are already barely managing to keep their heads above water. Millions of people are living in fear of one more thing going wrong- a car repair or broken washing machine, unexpected dental bills (because they do not qualify for free assistance), sickness, outgrown shoes, not being paid over a bank holiday because they are self employed or paid for work done (and their firm shuts down) or loss of working hours because the weather is too bad and they work outdoors- any of which will tip them over the edge into a financial abyss from which they will never claw themselves back out of.

The experience of food banks is that more of their users are unable to find reliable work because of a myriad of issues and users then go on to be further handicapped by benefit delays, sanctions and even benefit refusal. In The Guardian (Nov 2014) a report by Melissa Viney says: “The most recent government figures (to June 2014) show that only 2% of longer-term ESA claimants find sustained employment. Independent research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has found that disabled people are about half as likely to find employment as non-disabled people. Last week, a report suggested that officials were considering cutting ESA, which is paid to around 2 million people, by as much as £30 a week as the chancellor, George Osborne, seeks a £12bn cut in the welfare bill.” A DWP whistleblower claimed “ the majority of my ESA caseload of about 100 clients were not well enough to have been on the government’s welfare-to-work Work Programme, but should instead have been signposted to charities that could support them with their multiple problems.” Instead people were left to negotiate a system that could not effectively place them in work because it is trying to force square pegs into skimpy round holes.

In a job market that is over subscribed, the disabled (including the mentally ill) are not going to get the pickings. In addition, staff were not given copies of job seekers Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and so were unable to offer any kind of tailored support or advice. The DWP state that providers “have the freedom to design any work-related activity so it is appropriate to the person’s condition”, yet fail to address the issue of staff being unable to do this because they do not possess the right information on the person.

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The blasé cruelty of ministers such as Lord Freud, who slurred desperate families by claiming that people were turning up just because there was ‘free food’, and not out of necessity is breathtaking. He would be perfectly aware of the surveys that show many people wouldn’t consider turning to a food bank for help when they need it: they find the stigma attached to ‘asking for food’ too humiliating.He would also be aware that families need to be referred to local food banks; you cannot just rock up with a shopping bag and fill it at will. In a seemingly desperate attempt to smear the charities who run food banks (including the Trussell Trust), DWP department directory Neil Couling, gave evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee on food banks and questioned the motivations of the UK’s biggest supplier of emergency food aid by implying that a motivation for their growth was Christian “evangelism” and that the food banks were merely an “evangelical device”. This elicited a furious reaction from the chair of the Trussell Trust who wrote: “Please provide me immediately with the evidence you have to support this assertion. You are directly challenging the integrity of a registered charity and its trustees both past and present. If you are not able to provide evidence to support this assertion please write immediately to the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee to withdraw the statement.”

We all remember Jack Monroe’s bleakly truthful blog posts about her own food poverty, and the resulting desperate attempts by the right wing press and its sympathisers to discredit her. Failing to comply with the ‘feckless, fat and lazy’ stereotype that is ignorantly trotted out by those who should be chained to a food bank and made to listen to their users and their children (who surely do not deserve to go without) made her an articulate threat and not easily dismissed. Ms Monroe faced them down, providing researched, clear and objective rebuttals, trembling with well controlled, justifiable outrage. She continues to highlight food poverty in the UK and the structural issues underpinning this alongside imaginative and accurately costed out recipes that are based on ingredients that are truly inexpensive (or should I say not as expensive?). I have cooked from them, own both her books and encourage others who need cost effective, nourishing meal ideas to do so. (Her pasta flavoured with a jar of 19p fish paste that itself has no nasties in the ingredients is genius)

In the USA, Linda Tirado recently authored her first book ‘Hand to Mouth’  after posting an essay about the American poverty trap online whilst working two low-paid jobs, which went viral. Extending it into the now book, Tirado has similarly been exposed to the same slanderous much raking attempts to discredit her, resulting in her posting her welfare records online plus a devastatingly brave and honest video in which she discussed appalling access to dental care and the way this impacts upon a persons job worthiness in the eyes of employers. Poor dental care is not only an aesthetic issue either when you consider the positive correlation dental decay has with cardiac problems and what these cost the public health service of any country. As usual, a government is relying on short term measurable actions rather than investing more on the medium and longer term measures that will save more in the long run: the latter are unfortunately not as immediately impressive to a voting public with short term moral attention deficits. Tirado lays waste to the American Dream and the much bandied ethos that if you want it and work for it, you will have it, irrespective of social class or cultural background. The fact that millions work over fifty hours a week in minimum wage zero contract positions yet still cannot afford to feed or house themselves is terrifying and subversive proof that this is no longer true. No wonder the establishment seeks to silence her.

During the course of researching this piece I have met men and women who:

  • Wear glasses with a prescription out of date by years, lenses scratched and smeared because they cannot afford to replace them (again, you only get free eye tests and prescriptions if you are on a very low income or receive a higher level of tax credits);
  • Have to struggle on with painful teeth but do not qualify for or cannot find NHS dental care. (Remember that travelling to meet repeated appointments to an NHS dentist forty miles away is out of reach for people with little money for public transport or petrol.) I have also met people with badly fitting dentures because the NHS pairs are not adequate and they cannot afford to go private;
  • Go out foraging for fruit and vegetables not because they love to go back to nature of a weekend or have read Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s or Renee Redzepi’s latest tome on foraged cheffery but because they cannot afford to buy decent quantities of fruit and veg (and this includes stealth raids on fields of sweetcorn, cabbages and local orchards). They live too far away from local markets or discount supermarkets and having to spend a tenner on transport wipes out any monies saved;
  • Are teachers, buying breakfast and ‘snacks’ for their pupils out of their own pockets because they are clearly coming to school hungry-and  not because their parents are feckless either but because there is only enough for a tiny bowl of cereal or one piece of toast. And when you eat not quite enough cumulatively over days or weeks, it is much harder to work all morning on smaller rations- this despite Michael Gove’s accusation that ‘feckless parenting’ lies behind this;
  • Have to return some food items to the food bank because they cannot afford to cook them or have run out of gas on their pre-paid credit meter, instead relying on foods that can be cheaply heated or eaten cold;
  • Shamefacedly admit to taking toilet paper from public toilets because they cannot afford to buy it. They choose to spend the money they do have on what goes into their children’s mouths rather than what comes out of their bottoms;
  • Have had to stay inside for the best part of a week because they cannot always afford decent sanitary protection and feel too ashamed to admit this. Or they ration what they do have or use cheaper, less efficacious products.

I have seen the shame on the face of one father as he tells me about sneaking into schools lost property room in the hope of finding an unnamed school sweatshirt in the right size that they can use for their child. They worry themselves sick about birthdays and Christmas, about their kids being invited to parties and hiding from trick or treaters because they have nothing they can give them; about the school trips that they cannot afford and the fact that they forever window shop on life, faced pressed against the glass and not yearning for much, just the chance to afford a treat or a day out, something to relieve the monotony and exhaustion because being poor is so very tiring. Many had good jobs when they had their children, or were in good marriages that then failed. They tried to make good choices, didn’t live beyond their means and didn’t flash the plastic even though previous governments did their level best to encourage us all to live on credit and delayed consequences.

A recent poll by Kelloggs has also revealed that almost one third of teachers admit to bringing in food for pupils they think may have missed breakfast and  two fifths of school staff (38%) know of pupils who have not enough to eat on a daily basis. Teachers talk of lethargic children with 83% commenting that they had noticed that their pupils could not concentrate properly. Again, the blame was ascribed to breakdowns in benefit assessment, a living wage that is not a living wage and in some cases, parents failing to ensure children were adequately nourished at breakfast times.

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As Winter approaches, more people will be forced to choose between heating their home adequately and eating properly with a recent Which? survey for the Tonight programme revealing that 46% of respondents plan to cut back spending in other areas to pay their winter energy bills. In an ITV programme shown on Nov 6th, reporter Chris Choi put together a log of his experience in a cold chamber to simulate the conditions experienced by those living in fuel poverty, a room cooled to 12 degrees. Interviews with health and social care professionals discuss the problems this causes for the most vulnerable, exacerbating existing health conditions and rendering them vulnerable to a host of others.

The UK is supposed to be built on a bedrock of  christian principles but the fact is, if you object to your tax pounds being spent on the poor, you are not one. This government happily trots out christian ideology and mores when it suits, yet ignores its central tenets. I do not believe that the greatest goodness comes from being a religious person yet I do hold those that claim to be to higher standards, especially when it is used to justify moral and legal pronouncements on how we live and how the country is run accordingly. When those judgements are used to justify punitive measures against the poorest and whip up hatred and derision towards them we see the moral ugliness of those in charge.

The Trussel Trust– find your nearest foodbank

The Gatehouse Foodbank in Bury St Edmunds

East Suffolk food bank

Newmarket Open Door

Haverhill food bank

Suffolk info link

<Addendum>

In the Guardian on December 8 2014, the paper warns of impending Conservative party hostility to an all party report on food banks which warns that Britain is “stalked by hunger caused by low pay, a growth in inequality, harsh benefit sanctions regime and social breakdown”. The Conservative party is seeking to avert a damaging rift with the Church of England over this with the church-funded report describing voluntary groups as “courageously fighting “a social Dunkirk” without the assistance of the government”, and calls for urgent action to ensure ministers do more to combat hunger, including joining a new coordinating body and asking supermarkets to do more with surplus unsold products.

The initial Conservative reaction to leaks of the report – which is formally published today – was hostile, with one minister claiming the increased use of food banks was due to greater publicity about their existence. Read the article here.

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Food Inglorious Food: or how our government continues to fail the poorest.

  1. Wow, a really informative and emotive piece there Nicola. It’s awful that so many people (and especially so many children) in our country continue to love below the poverty line. I don’t give as regularly to our local food bank as I should, thanks to your article from today that will change.

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