Earlier this year the Trussell Trust, the largest network of foodbank providers, reported a 163 per cent increase in the number of people using its services. But is Britain really hungry, and getting hungrier? The debate was polarised: for the Left, it was all about the wicked Tory-dominated Coalition government slashing benefits, forcing sick people to go out to work and imposing a Bedroom Tax on people who had more space in their homes than they needed. For the Right, it was all about feckless spongers who lay on their sofas all day watching Sky Sports and eating pizza rather than getting on their bikes and looking for work.
The trouble is that both sides had too much invested in their particular narratives to be able to listen to the people they were supposed to be talking about.
A report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, Feeding Britain – backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury – may have offered a chance to break the log-jam. But is anyone really listening?
Foodbanks, who needs them?
Opponents say that more people are using foodbanks because there are more foodbanks, and who'd pass up the chance of free food? So the growth in foodbanks is a sign of misdirected charity creating its own demand.
This is a temptingly plausible argument. However, Feeding Britain has crunched the numbers: from 2003 onwards, the proportion of household income spent on food, housing and utilities has been steadily rising. We've also seen the highest rates of inflation in Western economies, lost the highest number of well-paid manufacturing jobs and have far more very low-paid workers than other countries. 'Food inflation' was 47 per cent in Britain, 30.4 per cent in the United States, 22.1 per cent in Germany and 16.7 per cent in France. So people have got poorer.
That can't be the only reason, surely?
No. According to Feeding Britain, the commonest reason for people visiting foodbanks was benefit-related problems. These range from crucial documents going missing to illiterate claimants sanctioned because they hadn't filled a form in properly. So people are left without money for days or weeks through absolutely no fault of their own.
Yes. Some mistakes and delays are inevitable in an operation of this size, but a great deal can be done to make things easier and more efficient. For instance: "The Inquiry was told of one man in Birmingham who had made a mistake on his application for Jobseeker's Allowance. He received no money for twelve weeks. During the twelve weeks he was seen rummaging in the bins behind a chip shop. When the owner of the chip shop got fed up with him rummaging through the bins and phoned the police, the man was arrested for trespassing." This is outrageous.
I'm still not sure why people actually go hungry...
The problem is one of poverty in general, not just food poverty. As well as food, life's essentials are shelter (housing) and warmth (utilities). If you can't afford to pay your bills you will be cut off or evicted. So the tendency is to economise on something that you can actually control, ie eating. Foodbanks reintroduce a 'buffer zone' to enable people to meet their other necessary outgoings.
Great! so we just throw money at the situation and everything's fine?
No. Money does help. If you have money, you can cope with more stuff going wrong in your life than if you haven't; for instance, if you have money and a drug habit you might be fine, but if you have a drug habit and no money you are likely to drift into theft, violence or prostitution, with all the associated dangers. However, some people on benefits live chaotic lifestyles dominated by alcohol, drugs and other addictions. Here's where the hand-wringing Left has tended to give too much away to the iron-fisted Right: just because someone's poor, it doesn't mean that they are saintly – and every example of someone gaming the system gives ammunition to people who say that it's all their own fault.
The point is that it isn't enough just to give people food bags. It does make sense to raise the minimum wage if possible, reduce the amount of tax taken from low-paid workers and to encourage as many employers as possible to introduce a Living Wage system. But some people also need help with things like learning to cook, learning to budget and learning how to be a parent. Lady Jenkin said at the launch of Feeding Britain that 'poor people do not know how to cook' and that she had had a bowl of porridge for fourpence that morning. The 'Tory peer says let them eat porridge' headline was a media gift, but what she wanted to say was that a lot of people lack basic life skills, including knowing how to cook, and she was right.
I thought foodbanks were a good idea. This all sounds like a much bigger proposition.
It is. Many foodbanks already offer counselling services and practical help of various kinds. But that's why Feeding Britain proposed a vast expansion of the foodbank network, with government backing, aimed at harnessing the energy and good will of supermarkets, industry, local authorities, community groups and volunteers. So a 'Food Bank Plus' would become a local hub whose function was to help people out of food insecurity for good.
Plausible is the word. They might do a great deal of good. However, this idea has been criticised because it seems to institutionalise foodbanks, meaning that at a fundamental level society is accepting that people will always need charity if they are to eat. So the argument stops being about serious political and economic reform which allows people to earn their own living, and starts being about managing an insoluble problem. Arguably there is something deeply wrong about this. The problem shouldn't be insoluble.
So, what can churches actually do?
Starting or contributing to a foodbank is still a good idea, and having a collection point for cans and packets in church is fairly easy. Volunteering to mentor people, running cookery classes or basic computer literacy courses (really helpful for job-seekers) are all more challenging but really vital work. Consider lunch clubs for children in school holidays (no free school meals). Most of all: whenever you can, bring up the question of food poverty with your MP and local council. Charity is one thing, justice another.
Campaign against food waste, for a start. The authors of Feeding Britain – sensible, cautious people all – say: "Our anger knows no bounds that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food which is euphemistically termed 'surplus', is destroyed at a substantial cost, when it, alone, could eliminate hunger in our society." One practical step you could take is to get involved in the Gleaning Network, which 'salvages' edible food that would otherwise be ploughed back into the ground because it's the wrong shape or has mild pest damage.
Giving to a foodbank is easy enough, though running one is harder. Digging down into the reasons why people need them is harder still – and working to change that is hardest of all, opening us to charges of political meddling. Famously, Dom Helder Camara said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." But no one said discipleship was easy.
Rev Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and contributing editor to Christian Today. Follow him on Twitter.