The debate surrounding the rapid expansion of food banks in Britain did 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!”
“OH, NO THEY HAVEN’T!”
The problem is that the debate is stuck on just one axis: whether or not people out of work and earning very little are receiving 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 the welfare state is supposed to provide.
Those 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 marginalized. The question is not how much welfare is needed. It´s 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 centralized, state-funded and financial in nature towards decentralized system that is more charitable, personal and relational. Right.
And 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: first, 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; second, 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 (there is a shame factor to overcome, of course, 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.
The current politicized debate over food banks is in danger of missing a strategic opportunity: to forge new partnerships which could pave the way for more decentralized welfare provision, and reduce our dependence as a society on a system that has become financially unsustainable and relationally disjointed.
Waste perfectly edible food and allow it to harm the environment. Or… rescue it and use it to feed the hungry? It’s really an obvious choice. It’s a choice that food bankers act upon every single day.
It goes without saying that food banks exist to feed the hungry, but what’s not as evident – but is equally as important – is that the very heart of food banking rests on eliminating food waste and helping the environment.
Essentially, food banking is about logistics—finding and rescuing nutritious food before it goes to waste and getting it to where it is needed. Food loss and food waste happens throughout the food chain. And food banks rescue and redistribute otherwise wasted food at each stage. This intervention can include produce from farms and processors, packaged goods from manufacturers and stores, and prepared foods from restaurants, hotels and other organizations.
Last year, food rescued by The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) and network food banks kept more than 920 million pounds of food out of landfills. And used it to feed hungry people. This is very important from a humanitarian perspective.
It is also beneficial to the environment, since food in landfill produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming.
There is a new emphasis on eliminating waste in the food chain. But, no matter how much industry and agriculture can eliminate food waste at various points, there will always be surplus.
And, there will always be people without access to food. So let´s feed them!
Do you agree? If you´re fascinated by the humanitarian side of nutrition, we´d love to help you on your way forward to a career in this field. Get in touch for more details!