Rachel Coxon, BA Economics and Politics
By compensating for austerity measures, organisations like food banks enable policymakers to construct food poverty as a matter of charity rather than a political obligation.
When Britain’s first soup kitchens emerged in the early 1800s, they were immediately controversial. There was no shortage of need; with Britain in the throes of an industrial revolution, hunger was practically a hallmark of urban life.
Yet, Victorian society despised them, arguing that such aid would encourage ‘dependency’. The suggested remedy for this: the workhouse, in which punitive conditions of labour would allegedly deter any but the ‘truly destitute’ from applying for relief. Of course, what could make the profligate poor work if not the immediate threat of starvation?
As much as I would like to avoid historical reductionism, I cannot help but think that in the two hundred years since the public debate of food poverty began, not much has changed. In our current era of neoliberalism, the ‘dependency’ argument serves to justify the rolling back of welfare.
One needs only look to the idea of the ‘welfare queen’ to see this. In much the same way that we have returned to a workhouse-adjacent social safety net, charities are once again picking up the slack for the welfare state. This time around, it is the Foodbank, not the soup kitchen, which is the focus of public discussion.
Unsurprisingly, the 2008 financial crisis followed by the welfare reforms of 2013 (not to mention the pandemic 2020) rendered the UK food system unnavigable. Food Banks serve as a response to the violence of austerity: situated in basements and church halls across the UK, their primary role is in the provision of emergency food parcels in the event of delays or reductions in benefits.
The majority of these food banks belong to the Trussell Trust, a charitable organisation, though a few are independent. However, as much as they intended to be a temporary fixture in a wider system, some 15 years after the first branch opened, food banks are now a permanent fixture of the UK welfare system.
And herein lies the dilemma: while it is true that food banks should not exist and should not have to exist, their very existence is the means through which welfare was rolled back in the first place. By compensating for austerity measures, organisations like food banks enable policymakers to construct food poverty as a matter of charity rather than a political obligation.
The ability to access food is framed not as a right but as a gift, only given to those most ‘deserving’ of it.
At the core of this dilemma is the nature of charity and its dynamics; a giver and a receiver, one with more and the other with less, a moral judgement. The Trussell Trust, which is responsible for a wide network of food banks across the UK, has long been criticised for its use of a voucher system as a means of establishing ‘genuine need’.
This practice betrays a moral judgement, it is a means to distinguish the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ according to arbitrary criteria. In this sense, the charitable organisation is merely taking on the role of the neo-liberal state. The discourses of charity constructed within foodbank practises, whether intentional or not, serve to uphold and further embed neoliberal ideologies of welfare.
In spite of all of this, I am not arguing that food banks should cease to exist, nor am I arguing that they are irredeemable. Put simply, my argument is as follows: in order to address the fundamental injustices in the food system, food aid organisations need to move away from principles of charity and towards solidarity. Practically, this could mean moving beyond voucher systems and instead embracing self-referral and unconditional giving.
In smaller independent and community food banks, much of this has already been achieved through involving people experiencing food insecurity in the design of food aid systems. Importantly, solidarity is recognising that food aid should not be conditional, it is merely returning to people what has been stolen through the cruelty of welfare reform.
Photo Caption: volunteers sort through donations in a foodbank warehouse. (Credit: Unknown)