If, as most theologians claim, that “Christ is embodied in particular kinds of human relationships – those in which people seek and find justice, worth and dignity”, then as we approach almost a quarter decade of UK emergency food aid, run predominantly by Christian charities, it might be timely to reflect on where Christ might be in this ever growing Christian led response?
From my own vantage point onto the issue from The Charles Plater Trust (CPT), an independent Catholic grant maker that has awarded over three million pounds to domestic ‘common good causes’ since it was set up in 2006, I have watched as the number of applications for our all too limited funds, has just exploded in the last two years.
We already knew, from our own survey data with our funded charities back in 2020, that coming out of the Covid-19 crisis, the challenges facing our charity partners and the voluntary sector more broadly, were daunting. With their own fundraising income down, reserves dwindling, demand for their services up and the positive emergency covid funding resources disappearing, it became clear, that just keeping going in these pressurised circumstances was not going to be easy for many. And sadly, we heard last week of the intended closure of one of the excellent charities we fund – not because there was no longer any need for their support for vulnerable children, but simply because the finances just could not be found to keep going in these testing times.
Using actual practice from the work of some of these CPT charity partners, I’d like to suggest that despite these enormous pressures on charities, we can nonetheless begin to trace the outline of a more radical form of food aid, pioneered by some, beyond the dominant food bank model. These, I’d like to suggest, perhaps correspond more closely to an emerging theology of food justice.
After much campaigning by the sector for more robust food insecurity measures to be introduced to assess the scale of the UK food crisis, the Agricultural Act 2020 finally introduced a duty on Government to report on food security at least once every three years.
The first statistical report by DEFRA in Dec 2021 found that 8% of households regarded themselves as being food insecure in 2019/20. In addition, the DWP included new questions on food bank use in its long-running Family Resources Survey in 2019.
Latest data, published in March 2023, showed that in 2021/22, 2.1 million people in the UK lived in a household which had used a food bank in the previous 12 months, a rate of 3%.
Aside from the official statistics, a YouGov survey by the Food Foundation, a food poverty charity, reveals a more dismal scenario. It found that in January 2023, 17.7% of households in the UK were ‘food insecure’ (ate less or went a day without eating because they couldn’t access or afford food), up from 8.8% in January 2022.
Households with children, disabled people, in receipt of Universal Credit and from minority ethnic backgrounds, all were more vulnerable to experiencing food poverty. But all figures, especially food bank usage statistics, reveal only a very partial picture of UK hunger and should not be used as a proxy for food poverty, which is multidimensional in nature and complicated to measure. As the growing literature on food banks and food insecurity highlights, the relationship between the two is far from straightforward, and reliance on emergency food aid to respond to food insecurity may actually be impeding the development of effective policy interventions.
And what about the unknown number of migrants who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and so find themselves completely destitute? One of our partners, the Our Lady and St Kenelm St Vincent de Paul Society Conference in Halesowen, has set up a form of ‘cash transfer’ with a supermarket voucher scheme, directed especially at NRPF migrants and asylum seekers. The local SVP supply supermarket vouchers to families and individuals who are unable to afford food otherwise, selecting supermarkets closest to them, and distributing them in a deeply relational approach of home visitation. So far, they have distributed 125 supermarket vouchers to 98 families and 27 individuals, and the need keeps growing. As Anna who has benefitted from the scheme writes:
“I am a mum of two children aged five and six. My first son has been diagnosed with autism. It has been a very challenging situation for me to manage both boys with the money I am getting from asylum support. The vouchers I received from the SVP have really helped me and my boys go a long way to meet some of our basic needs.”
Mike Weaver, president of the parish SVP conference, explained:
“It didn’t make sense to us to establish a food bank. The issue locally isn’t about access to food- it’s rather that some people have been excluded from an already precarious welfare safety net and so just can’t afford to buy food in the usual way. But why shouldn’t they be able to shop for food like everyone else? So, our vouchers are an efficient and low-cost way to enable people to purchase fresh, nutritious, culturally sensitive food, in a dignified way that doesn’t make people feel ashamed or embarrassed. We’ve also found that it’s the basic trust, and taking time to build relationships, not just the practical help, that people seem to value most.”
The Halesowen SVP approach in many ways replicates best practice in international development. Beyond a distribution of food in the first stages of an emergency, generally, most INGOs would focus on enabling people to buy their own food in local markets with some sort of cash transfer system before moving focus to sustainable livelihoods development.
The critique of UK emergency food aid, and the food charity model more broadly, has undoubtedly gained traction in recent years. More Christians are asking the substantive theological question – why in a rich developed nation do we need food handouts?
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