The food bank debate: shifting the axis of analysis

By JubileeCentre 20 May 2014

by Jonathan Tame, 20th May 2014

Food bank investigation by the Sunday Mirror-1519590The current debate surrounding the rapid expansion of food banks in Britain can sound a bit like two clowns shouting at a children’s party:

“The changes in the welfare system have left lots of people without enough food!”…..
“Oh, no they haven’t!”
“Oh, yes they have!”

The problem is that the debate is stuck on just one axis: whether or not people out of work or on low incomes are getting enough money to pay for basic needs.

Those on the Left argue that the Coalition government’s welfare reforms are leaving an increasing number of people outside the safety net that the welfare state is supposed to provide. Others on the Right point to numerous examples of unscrupulous people taking advantage of this new service and obtaining food parcels when they don’t really need them.

However there is another axis on which to evaluate food banks in the overall context of welfare provision for the poor and marginalised. The question is not how much welfare is needed, but who should provide it in a way that is fair and sustainable?

The rise in food banks represents a shift along the axis from welfare that is centralised, state-funded and financial in nature towards decentralised system that is more charitable, personal and relational. This is closer to the biblical model of welfare, where support and care was provided firstly through extended families, then via the local community, and in the last resort, from the central state – all in a culture where giving was a social obligation.

This shift has three potential benefits. Firstly, it is more sustainable in the long run: local communities donated over 8,000 tonnes of food last year and are providing 30,000 volunteers for the 420 Trussell Trust food banks in UK, at a time when the state welfare sector is facing years of tough spending cuts.

Secondly, people in need are getting more relational support: instead of receiving money through an impersonal bank transfer, they will be welcomed by concerned volunteers at the food banks who provide them with food parcels. Of course there is a shame factor to overcome, but there will be a human touch and a connection with the community which can help reduce the sense of isolation which may people on welfare feel.

Lastly, once a community-based system of welfare provision is well established, it has the potential to sift out claimants who are not in genuine need, because they are more likely to be known by the people administering the welfare.

I saw a similar principle at work when I lived in West Africa. I regularly had local people knocking on my door with an account of how they had fallen on hard times and needed a loan from me. I couldn’t easily say no, but I was afraid that some of the people were taking me for a ride. But then I learned how a missionary who had been there for many years handled such requests. He would send anyone asking for money to the national church pastor across the road, who would sound out their story. If he sent them back again then the missionary would give them what they asked for.

The current politicised debate over food banks is in danger of missing a strategic opportunity: to forge new partnerships which could pave the way for more decentralised welfare provision, and reduce our dependence as a society on a system that has become financially unsustainable and relationally disjointed.

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