Charity Will Never Solve The Problem But May Make It Worse

Robert Egger, American food campaigner and entrepreneur, has two pertinent quotes that are relevant to the ongoing roll out of food poverty services here in the UK.

“Too often, charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.” And; “Pity isn’t a plan.”

At Can Cook we passionately believe in the need for charity, it helps people out of immediate risk and it can, an often does, fill gaps mobilising local people to generate local responses. Charity has the ability to move much quicker than more established statutory services and can therefore stem a local problem quicker. It is, however, only ever meant to be a temporary measure, filling in those short-term gaps, alerting others who can take on the bigger challenge of solving the problem.

Charity and food poverty is a good case study. In the UK, the charity response to food poverty was strong, putting a service in place as the public sector struggled to cope. Setting up food banks in the case of the Trussell Trust or producing reports such as those published by Oxfam – it was all activity that laid the foundations for the food poverty movement we have now. It has created a movement that parts of the UK the public has bought into via donations of all sorts and it has done so via a frenzy of activity and emotion; highlighting struggle, lobbying those with influence, and all the time looking to secure more resources to respond to increased demand – this is classic charity but classic charitable models have real limitations and those limitations ultimately restrict the value and scope of the response as the problem gets worse or as is the case the Government ignores the problem altogether.

Moreover, charity cannot really campaign; it can object and subtly lobby, but start to cast influence and step too far into a political campaigning role and the Government can step in with threats of closure. Charity is also restricted by the donations it receives either from a public appeal it may administer or directly from a grants system it will apply to for whatever project it has in mind. It means that charity becomes quickly boxed in as the problem gets worse, needing more resources but finding those resources are finite and increasingly competitive, needing to say more but being careful not to say too much. It becomes a revolving door of lots of projects all wanting to do similar things, dreaming up the next new idea to keep potential funders happy, hardly ever joined up (because of competition) and ultimately leading to what we have now regarding food poverty here in the UK – thousands of little projects, all well intentioned, relying on volunteers and recycled (mostly processed) food, digging in for the long haul. It is unsustainable, it tires good people out and whilst it generates local services and awareness amongst those who (it could be argued) would support poverty initiatives anyway – it’s never able to move the problem into the mainstream of society and therefore will never offer a solution to the problem.

Right now, the food poverty problem is a charity problem. As a backdrop to services too much of the charitable activity is about the redemption of the giver and contains a strong thread of pity being part of the plan. Having generated lots of activity and local mini-projects, after roughly 8 years of concerted effort; still using the same methods of delivery and mostly relying on volunteers to deliver some sort of change – the model is tired and in need of a complete overhaul. But will those with a vested interest in the status quo be brave enough or will they cling onto what they have? It is likely the same-old will prevail. The current model is sustainable because its low cost (free food, free labour) and the alternative require new thinking and a shift of resources and that’s all about change. Let’s hope some are brave enough; the Feeding Britain initiative appears to be ready to break the mould and time will tell if it is able to do so.

We hope to see if the food poverty movement can offer solutions that are about good food, are about job chances and are able, through local enterprise, to generate solutions that can financially sustain themselves – it can be done but we need to be quick.

Next week – our food poverty track record…

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