Food bank bashing: when poverty dares speak its name

The Tories are trying to discredit food banks because the alternative would be to accept that their policies are creating poverty.

The Tories are trying to discredit food banks because the alternative would be to accept that their policies are creating poverty, writes Annie Powell

Today, Easter Sunday, that paragon of Christian virtue the Mail on Sunday has run a story about food banks. Not about how nearly a million people have been driven to such extreme poverty in Cameron’s Britain that they cannot afford to feed themselves, no, but about how one of its reporters lied to a food bank to obtain a free food parcel.

The point of the story? To make out that it’s easy to get free food from food banks and that those who do so are simply on the scrounge rather than in genuine need.

It’s pretty clear what’s prompted this bile. Not only does the soaring rise in food banks undermine the right’s rhetoric about benefit claimants, it also reveals the nature of in-work poverty.

Why would the sick or unemployed be referred to a food bank if they weren’t in desperate need of food? Aren’t they supposed to be living a life of luxury at the taxpayers’ expense? And if food bank users have a job, why can’t they afford to feed themselves?

It gets worse for the Tories. Food banks have captured the imagination of the national press in a way that other experiences of poverty have not. Food bank use is easily counted and easily communicated; poverty statistics are abstract but food parcels are strikingly evocative of aid efforts in developing countries. This is dangerously close to depicting the poor as deserving.

That’s why, with the help of Mail, the Tories are trying to discredit and smear those who run and those who rely on food banks. The unpalatable alternative would be to accept that their policies have created indefensible levels of poverty.

These smears tell you nothing about food banks, but a lot about the Tories. Possibly the most ridiculous attack on the Christian charity the Trussell Trust, the largest food bank provider in the UK, is that it’s a business and all its efforts therefore self-interested. “I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity,” wrote Iain Duncan Smith to the Trussell Trust last year.

This line of attack was continued in recent days, with a “senior Whitehall source” telling the Daily Mail that the charity’s “publicity seeking” was “not entirely surprising given Chris Mould [Trussell Trust chairman] is effectively running a business.”

The Trussell Trust gives food away for free to those who are assessed as in need. Now I’m no entrepreneur, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly promising business model.

This unnamed senior Whitehall source also accused the Trust of being “emotionally manipulative”. Emotionally manipulative, for speaking out about the need to feed the hungry in modern Britain. Goodness knows what they’d have to say about that arch manipulator whose teachings form the basis of the Trussell Trust’s mission.

Then there is the suggestion from our esteemed education secretary that people have enough money but are bad at managing it. And of course we’ve heard that food bank use is just one more example of “something-for-nothing” culture. Edwina Curry claimed that free food is needed by people who spend their money on dog food and tattoos.

Less grotesque but just as pernicious is DWP minister Lord Freud’s pronouncement that “there is actually no evidence as to whether the use of food banks is supply led or demand led…food from a food bank-the supply-is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good”. In other words, food banks are proliferating because people want free food not because they need it.

Leaving aside the fact that your circumstances will first be assessed in detail before you can receive a food parcel, and that for most people asking for food is a humiliating last resort, what exactly did the government think would happen when it legislated to increase the minimum – minimium – sanction for benefit claimants from one to four weeks? Four weeks, often longer, with no money. Iain Duncan Smith knows you need money to buy food, right?

Reports abound of the increasing and ludicrously unfair use of these sanctions: the woman who was sanctioned for failing to meet the quota of weekly job applications because she’d applied for too many of the available jobs in the preceding week; the man who could not attend his training course and jobcentreplus appointment because they clashed; the unemployed teacher who missed an appointment because she was attending an interview.

These are all fairly typical examples.

So that, Iain Duncan Smith et al, is why people are using food banks. That, stagnating wages, insecure work and your government’s detrimental changes and cuts to in and out-of-work benefits. But I think you already knew that, didn’t you?

*Details are here for how to donate to the Trussell Trust on a regular or one-off basis

Annie Powell is a Left Foot Forward contributing editor

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