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The Food Poverty Story Needs To Change…

The story goes; no matter the quality – food-aid food is better than no food at all. A story told by those who will never have to eat it.

In the 7 or so years since the Conservative/Lib Dem took hold of the governmental reigns and decided that it was fair to make working class people pay for the wilful acts of bankers, two storylines have dominated the UK social policy landscape. The first is austerity. The second is poverty.

The mind that creates austerity and sells it as fair is an evil mind, and the collective minds that agree and create policy and foist it upon millions of people are both callous and evil in equal measure.

The Conservative right, who are now the dominant political force, care not for suffering or the plight of others, their interests will always lay elsewhere protecting neo-liberal/ capitalist, small government, low taxation ways – the place evil-like austerity is dreamed up.

Back in the 18th century, Thomas Malthus and Joseph Townsend (both clerics) said ‘It is only hunger which can spur and goad them onto labour.’ Disinterred, precarity and desperation are recast as the necessary incentives to encourage the poor to work harder¹. A century later and this was the thinking of George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith when they, and others, agreed to slash benefits and push people desperately into low-paid or no-paid jobs and towards and into hunger. It was a story of bankers bankrupting a nation recast as working class scroungers and skivers – lazy benefit cheats that need to be forced to work like the rest of us – it’s been a story well told.

Alongside, the second storyline has been concurrent and a story equally well told. It’s one of poverty and in particular food poverty and how millions of people are relying on food handouts without which they would never cope. The difference here though is that the story is not pushed by Government but by the charity/third sector. It is a story so well told that the food poverty response led by big charities is now almost inseparable from the problem although the story told by those same charities is somewhat different, claiming they are indeed feeding people as well as can be expected, after what else would they say? They get away with this largely because of the desperation of those who are hungry and because often working-class people are regarded as culturally unsophisticated and parochial in their concerns. They are assumed too preoccupied with everything being working class entails to think beyond where their next crispy pancake is coming from.²

And it is those assumptions in part that drive the charity food aid storyline.

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.³ They capture our imagination and inspire and galvanise us to act.⁴ As both the government/third sector stories are being played out, it’s all about telling the same story over and over again and blocking out any objection in order to hold onto a moral high ground they both require for their stories to hold true.

Interestingly, both stories are politically/socially right-wing; believing they know best, pretending they have people’s best interests to heart and as much as they can, stopping/ignoring any counter argument. You have got to ask, as you watch those who hold the influence in the third sector food poverty debate, whether they recognise the hypocrisy of this element of their work; pressing the Government for policy change by claiming all that they do but never being able to accommodate any alternative discussion about the poor-food-for-poor-people model they hold so dear. A model that amounts to nothing more than ‘nutritional-austerity’.

Last week, an article appeared online and was retweeted widely by the food aid fraternity and academics alike. One paragraph was quite telling, it read;

‘People affected by food poverty face severe threats to their health and wellbeing. As well as stress, depression and anxiety that can result from not having enough money to feed their families, people experiencing food poverty also face a higher risk of obesity, because the only foods they can afford tend to be cheap, sugary, processed and fattening.’ ₅

It’s a paragraph that tells readers that a problem those with no or low incomes face is dealing with a life-threatening condition because of the food that they eat. Yet it is the very same food that the food aid model pushes out as its only offer. And 8 years on from when the current food aid food parcel was created, it remains its only offer – but sadly the story/claims are to the contrary.

In this blog space, as we write to raise these issues, we get academics contacting us asking for the evidence about why the food bank parcel is damaging to people’s health or cannot be eaten due to its poor processed quality. Our response starts with…how about the last 15 years of public health studies that have declared ultra-processed food wholly damaging to people’s health – the very same food that is in a food bank parcel. What we get back is silence – is it simply intelligent people unable make the connection? We don’t think so.

It is more likely that academics have become too close to organisations like Trussell (who hold a lot of the food poverty data) and need them for their research support to propagate their own stories.

It is also apparent that there are a group of Northern based academics who have written books and numerous papers on the subject, discussing every topic in detail but not once ever (to our knowledge) discussing the topic of poor-food-for-poor-people. The closest reference we have found (whilst hardly definitive), does indicate some sort of ‘progress’…

‘It’s going to be essential that our thinking is broad and ambitious and that it challenges contemporary minimalist tendencies in both understanding and responding to poverty and hunger. In particular, conceptualisations of the problem of food insecurity of not only dietary intake, but also the experience of acquiring food and the sustainability of those acquisition sources in the future.’₆

With the wealth of research/information available about crap food and the serious health problems it causes, it is fair to ask the question…why have most academics, and certainly those in the North of England chosen to avoid the subject? The question is important, because until those who can raise/write about the issue, the poor-food storyline will continue, promoted by influential storytellers who have so far proven themselves wedded to feeding people badly.

Creating a New Storyline

The need for a new story to be told that pushes back austerity is now being taken up by the Labour Party and with luck we may see a Labour Government soon. However, changing the damage austerity has done will take a parliament or two, so poverty will be with us at the level it is for maybe the next decade. It is therefore massively important that the second storyline of poverty, and in particular food poverty, being all the fault of this Government, undergoes a change. A change that is honest about the problem and honest about the solutions to the problem, and here we are talking about the problem being poor food being the only option available – it’s not – but the storyline is so wedded to the survival of certain charities that any change is going to be oh so difficult to achieve.

A sting of facts, however well attested, have no power in correcting or dislodging a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often deny facts that clash with the narrative ‘truth’ established in their own minds. It’s not enough to challenge an old narrative no matter how discredited it may be. Change only happens when you replace it with another. ₇

We naively thought that by gathering the facts about how poor the quality food bank produce is, and how damaging it is to people’s heath, that politicians and decision makers would sit up and take notice. In fact, 4 years ago when we presented this as a problem to food banks and Trussell et al, together with a solution or two, we believed they would want to take notice too. Instead, the politicians all said they wanted/want rid of food banks and they knew/know the food is poor quality but hope for big policy change and as for Trussell et al; in short they took/take no notice – 4 years on, the same problem exists and hungry people remain poorly fed because of the decisions of those in government and the third sector.

So how does the story change? There are a number of possible storylines.

Remain true to the current story and watch food poverty/ food banks become the feature they are in North America – here forever with the state grateful for the work they do – easing the pressure of real policy change. Or, start a new story of a third sector working together with the intelligence it has to create good-food-banks and a wider good-food-movement, feeding people well and still pressuring Government for change.

The solutions are here already and what a story it would be for the UK to be the first country to roll out a good food poverty model. We remain confused why others in the food poverty industry do not want this story to take hold and we remain frustrated also that they choose to ignore good food options and hold onto feeding people food they would never choose to eat themselves.

It’s not yet too late to change.

¹ George Monbiot

² Darren McGarvey

³ Phillip Pullman

⁴ Fiona Shaw

₅ The Conversation – 2018

₆ Hannah Lambie-Munford

₇ George Monbiot