Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, including What To Eat, Shopped, and Swallow This. She broadcasts regularly on food issues and writes for a wide range of newspapers and magazines.
Food banks have become a depressing feature of London life. But does food philanthropy entrench the problems it is trying to solve?
Accusations of smug metropolitanism are an occupational hazard for any journalist who writes about food in London. Readers complain that restaurant critics don’t get out of London enough, that cookery writers include ingredients that ‘ordinary folk’ outside the capital cannot find. The perception of London is of a rarefied, almost decadent place of ‘foodies’ with their boutique shops, luxury food halls and exotic restaurants. In a sense, this view is correct: London’s foodscape is luxurious, abundant, culturally varied, multi-layered, with a vitality that makes other cities look protectionist and monocultural.
Yet many Londoners suffer food poverty every bit as bleak and soul-destroying as that of less prosperous cities and regions. More than 2.3m Londoners live below the poverty line, one small crisis away from being unable to afford an adequate diet. And the sense of relative deprivation that comes with being poor in London is arguably more acute than that experienced in less well-off areas of the UK.
In London, as elsewhere, food banks (based on a North American model) have been the most significant non-governmental response to alleviating food poverty. Last year, Londoners paid more than 100,000 visits to food banks; 40,000 of them were made by children. Food banks, which are run by charities, rely on volunteers and donations from food companies, retailers, and individuals: what they receive is inevitably unpredictable and random.
These days, shoppers on their way out of supermarkets might well walk past capacious cardboard bins emblazoned with the shop’s logo and a conscience-pricking request to “please donate canned and packaged food to help your local community”. Food bank donation points allow supermarkets to position their brands at the forefront of the fight against food poverty and give their customers a feel-good opportunity to ‘do something’ for the less fortunate. Supermarkets also incidentally benefit from these collections because they drive sales of their ‘value’ and ‘budget’ lines (biscuits, crisps, canned food and so on), which customers buy as donations.
However complex the motivations of the supermarkets, the ambitions of the major charity running food banks are straightforward. Adrian Curtis, Network Director for the Trussell Trust, which runs 39 church-led food banks in London, recently tweeted: “Help us end hunger and poverty” – implying that food poverty can actually be cured (rather than simply temporarily ameliorated) by philanthropy.
Can it? A growing critique of food banks suggests that requests for donations of canned and packaged food may have unpalatable consequences. Many food banks are typically stocked with food that is cheap, low-quality and ultra-processed – precisely the stuff that anyone better off, or better advised, avoids. “While many food banks do organise locally to offer fresh food alongside the standard non-perishable parcel, it [fresh food] is not something we’re logistically able to roll out nationally at the moment”, explains the Trussel Trust’s Emma Thorogood. So a food bank parcel for a family of four can include up to 22 tins. The depressing irony here would not be lost on George Orwell, who wrote in The Road To Wigan Pier: “We may find in the long-run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun”.
Recipes circulated by food banks include tinned mince mixed with tinned carrots topped with economy smash potato (cottage pie) and tomato or chicken soup poured over pasta. A digestive biscuit finished with a canned pineapple ring cut in half to make a smiley face is suggested as a dessert for a child. While public health gurus debate how to curb society’s appetite for sugar, now seen as the major culprit in food-related disease, food banks brim with boxes labelled ‘sweet treats’. As Orwell put it: “When you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable… there is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you”.
Food banks in the UK started out as good-hearted initiatives, throwing a lifeline to the most desperate in an emergency, but there is growing concern that they are normalising the delivery of poor-quality food to poor people. Robbie Davison, Director of Can Cook UK, an organisation that designs its initiatives (kitchen sharing, pop-up cookery studios, food trucks, a care home café) to give poor people access to good-tasting, healthy, fresh food, thinks the response to food poverty must go beyond resigned pragmatism to enshrine health and social equity: “If food banks want to support people to get out of food poverty, as they claim, they would adapt their delivery to educate the donor and only collect or distribute food that the leaders of these organisations know can be turned into meals they would choose to eat themselves”.
The Felix Project, similarly, collects good-quality fresh food that would otherwise be wasted (supermarkets, caterers and other suppliers throw away more than 4m tons of food each year) and delivers it daily to selected local partner charities, such as the Sufra Food Bank and Kitchen in Brent, which then use it to prepare meals for the people they care for. Like Can Cook, the Felix Project aims to prevent reliance on reheated factory-made food by offering fresh ingredients that can be cooked from scratch.
Other philanthropic food schemes target specific demographic groups. The charity Magic Breakfast, which is supported by a variety of food and non-food businesses, aims to put a stop to children arriving at school too hungry to learn. In a recent survey, 96 per cent of teachers in Magic Breakfast schools reported observing increased alertness as a direct result of the initiative.
It would no doubt be better if there were no need for Magic Breakfast and its associated PR opportunities, if food poverty were not prevalent and if hunger in London were addressed systematically rather than on an ad hoc basis. As it is, Magic Breakfast has a client list of 185 London schools and a waiting list of 53 more, around a quarter of which are in Tower Hamlets. “It’s ironic that those schools are right next to Canary Wharf,” says Magic Breakfast’s Sophia Dettmer, “we desperately need the money from the rich parts of London to reach the poor parts – and the rich can see the playgrounds of the poor from their office windows”.
The ‘social supermarket’ offers an alternative social enterprise model, selling waste or surplus food from big retailers at a 70 per cent discount. Social supermarkets supply both fresh and non-perishable food, on a membership basis, to local residents who are on income support. Following a successful pilot in West Norwood, the Mayor’s Regeneration Team is supporting London boroughs to develop three more, in Clapham Park, Upper Edmonton and Northumberland Park.
Boris Johnson praised the social supermarket as a “sterling example of social enterprise and private organisations working together to create positive outcomes”. Which is all very well, but begs the question of whether social enterprise and the private sector are simply plugging gaps caused by an abdication of responsibility by government. Food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe argues that governments previously saw feeding populations as a test of their effectiveness, a duty they have since abandoned: “It’s a disgrace that food banks are needed in the first place, patching up the holes left by an inefficient and downright barbaric attack on the meagre safety net.”
In the last century, following the introduction of the welfare state, food poverty was widely viewed as the unfortunate fate of a minority who occasionally fell through the social security safety net. This century it is beginning to look like a permanent feature of life, even for Britons who are in employment, as this verse from a poem written by a food bank user makes clear:
“I know what it’s like to use the same teabag twice
To cut the mould from the bread, to rescue a slice
I didn’t ever think I would be in such a mess
While working full-time for a living, while suffering from illness and stress.”
Who is to blame? One place we might start looking for culprits is the UK’s increasingly streamlined food production, retail and distribution system, concentrated in the hands of a small number of large players whose might shapes our food chain. We need to ask whether a food supply system that overlooks environmental concerns, treats animals cruelly, pays low wages, generates waste and erodes human health is sustainable.
The system’s flaws should be in the forefront of policymakers’ minds: each and every proposal to tackle food poverty should be examined coolly and critically to ensure that it doesn’t uselessly replicate a broken status quo. Does the initiative in question pump grassroots prosperity more equitably into its local community? Or does it institutionalise the delivery of low-grade food? Many laudable food poverty initiatives revolve around diverting food waste, but unless they also challenge the food industry diktats and supply chain prerogatives that create it, they are simply scraps of charity.
Food poverty is essentially a money problem, not a food problem. When you haven’t got the wherewithal to fill your larder or your stomach, the answer isn’t a voucher for a can of soup, sliced white bread that’s past its best-before date and a pack of broken custard creams. It’s a decent living wage and a rent you can afford.