I am fed up hearing people in this country talk about food poverty. While there are food deserts, and too many places where good quality food is too expensive and not accessible, there is not a shortage of food. For too many people, however, there is a shortage of money. And there is an acute shortage of trust. It is these things that we need to address.
The problem of food poverty raised its head again last week following the completely justified outrage at the pathetic food parcels being delivered by Chartwells to families entitled to free school meals. The company apologised but you can see how it happens.
The company was given £30 to provide a food parcel. It starts by taking its profit; then the costs of its staff; the cost of transport; the costs of running the organisation, etc. etc. And before you know it, Mum is getting £5 of groceries over which she has no choice rather than £30 to spend in ways she knows will suit her kids.
Pathetic but inevitable unless we can face up to some hard truths.
Truth #1: Food parcels are not the answer. I am full of admiration for all those who have collected, sorted and delivered emergency food packages to families running out of food over this last horrible year. They have been and are a lifeline to so many. But we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that this is a long-term and sustainable solution to the problems we face. We shouldn’t still be here, providing sticking plaster solutions to gaping wounds in our welfare system.
Truth #2: The provision of vouchers, whilst better, is still not an adequate answer. I heard a spokesperson indicating that this was a way of ensuring that the money was spent on the children and not on cigarettes, alcohol, and lottery tickets. She clearly has never known the levels that parents will go to to ensure that their children are fed. She clearly hasn’t worked out that a voucher for a supermarket that is miles away when you don’t have a car is a pretty stupid idea. She clearly has never suffered the indignity of getting part of her salary in food stamps.
Truth #3: Giving people the money is the most sensible way of dealing with this. That way families can shop where works best; buy the food that suits best; and live with the dignity that we all deserve. I am not naïve enough to pretend that every penny will be spent perfectly – you should see our shopping trolley – but I’d be willing to wager that much more of the money will end up providing the right food for the children that it is intended for.
Truth #4: The real problem, however, runs even deeper than money. It is about trust, or more accurately, the lack of trust within our systems. It’s endemic not only within our public services but across much of society. We take isolated and extreme examples of where a family may have managed its resources poorly and we create systems which try to prevent such things from happening. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the systems we have created simply do not believe that the vast majority of parents love their kids and want what’s best for them. That’s the real shift we need to enable.
In Glasgow, the city where I live, the local authority has moved to a ‘money-first’ response after input from policy experts and, more importantly, families struggling to put food on the table. Well done to them for being willing to listen to that wisdom.
In the longer-term, important issues remain to be addressed. Food is a vital community-builder and we need to find ways in which sharing food will help to deepen some of the sense of community that so many are hungry for at this time. We know that food creates community. It is time for us to take much more seriously how communities can create food.
It is time also, in the light of the ‘money-first’ response advocated by growing numbers (including many food banks who recognise the unsustainability of the current model) to give us an important insight into the potential benefit of Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is part of a vital re-imagining of our welfare system that is essential for post-COVID times. People who know how hard it is to feed their children need to be at the heart of that debate.
For the moment we need to be ensuring that the £20 uplift in Universal Credit introduced at the start of this pandemic, and due to end in April, is maintained. It has been a lifeline for millions.
Yes, good quality food is part of the solution. But people need to be able to have the money to buy the food that they need and want to share. And we need to trust one another to do that.