Of all the things in the news at the moment, the one that makes me angriest are the photographs of Tory MPs grinning at the opening ceremonies of new food banks. What on Earth is there to celebrate in the need for food banks? Austerity was a deliberate Government decision, directly targeted at the poor and the vulnerable. It’s supposed to be over now, but the calls upon the food banks remain undiminished, and the MPs whose party created the need for them smile cheerfully at their expansion. When the children and I go to the supermarket, each of us has to remember one thing from the urgent needs list that’s displayed beside the doors – our local food bank is ok for pasta and tinned fish, but they need tinned sponge puddings and dried milk – find it on the shelves, and add it to the box on the way out. Sometimes I do my shopping online, where there’s an option to add a donation at the checkout. It’s become a routine. But I am constantly torn between the fact that I can, and the fact that I shouldn’t have to. In the fifth richest nation in the world, no one’s next meal should depend on whether my eight year old puts a tin of pasta in the shopping trolley. I add toothbrushes, toothpaste, sanitary products – the kind of thing the children might not think of, but that I don’t want to imagine living without. But what kind of society creates this need, then celebrates it?
Where is God in the food bank box? It’s tempting to say that God lies in the generosity of those who donate, or in whatever spirit moves the supermarkets to act as agent for the charity, or in the time of the volunteers who manage the distribution. It’s easy to create a feel-good narrative as the box fills up, and to think warmly about the dear poor person sitting down to the nice steamed pudding they wouldn’t otherwise have had. There are lots of treat foods going in there at the moment, and I’m not the only one who put in Advent calendars. The way that austerity has impacted the lives of children is, quite simply, unforgiveable, and the calendars went in with the precise degree of rage that the need for them warranted. God’s in the rage, not the warm glow.
Poverty is a terrible thing. It eats at the soul. And – maybe you have to have been there to understand this fully – poverty is excruciatingly time consuming. To eat well on a tight budget takes a degree of planning and dedication that is utterly alien to people with means. Not only in terms of shopping and cooking, but in terms of form filling and box ticking and meeting all kinds of terms and conditions laid down by others, to make sure you really are deserving and worthy. To get to places on time; to source the things you need to look professional, to find work, to complete your homework. You can’t just rock up to the food bank and ask for that jar of hot chocolate and a tin of peaches. You have to be referred, and that means red tape and hurdles and desperately trying to frame your story so as not to attract the judgement of others. It’s all part of the convenient ‘othering’ of the poor, that allows us to sidestep responsibility. Whether we frame them as innocent victims or feckless scroungers, as heroic or as irresponsible, we construct a narrative that has nothing to do with the real person experiencing need. Make no mistake – if Jesus came to England in 2018, he’d be using the food bank, not adding an Advent calendar to a full trolley.