Food banks aren't uplifting - they're so much more than that.

Jacob Rees-Mogg famously described the huge support shown to food banks as "rather uplifting" and evidence of "what a compassionate country we are”. It’s a claim that has haunted him ever since, with no end of social media memes using the quote (or, at least, the word “uplifting”) to show how out of touch with reality he is.

It’s easy to ridicule Jacob Rees-Mogg, of course. But there are two observations that I’d to make in relation to what he said three years ago. The first is that he never claimed food banks themselves were “uplifting”; he was referring only to the voluntary effort behind them. Secondly, the narrative often spun by Mr Rees-Mogg’s critics is as unhelpful and dishonest as the North East Somerset MP’s attempts to deny that increased use of food banks was connected to the social effects of government policy.Naturally I disagreed with Jacob Rees-Mogg at the time. The best that can be said is that he was being highly selective in focusing on the country’s “compassion” rather than the reasons why such compassion is necessary  In his interview with LBC he didn’t give the impression that he understood the issues surrounding food poverty, and his insistence that the rise in the numbers of food banks was solely down to more people being aware of them – rather, than, say, a growing awareness of local need as government policy bites – defied belief.

That said, I’m equally uncomfortable with the narrative that says there was no need for food banks until the Conservatives came to power, or that the emergence of food banks is a sign of an unhealthy society. In a strong, caring, compassionate society food banks would never be necessary – or so the logic goes. This is a narrative neatly encapsulated in this tweet from activist Hasan Patel, who seems to be employing the tactics that repeating simplistic statistics frequently enough will result in equally simplistic interpretations becoming widely accepted as fact.

There has always the need for a charitable response. The idea that, until David Cameron entered 10 Downing Street, the state was able to adequately support its most vulnerable citizens does not stand up to serious scrutiny. The Salvation Army, for example, was created in 1865 precisely for this reason. Even since the creation of the welfare state this need has never been eradicated.

In the 1990s I was homeless in Glasgow for several months. I found out what it was like to be street homeless. I went to "drop ins" and soup kitchens for food, but there were various charities who would hand out food if you knew where to go and queue at the right time. Usually it was in George Square. On Monday night a man called Dennis from a charity called Loaves and Fishes would arrive to provide meals from the back of a van. On Tuesday night the Salvation Army would be down there. A pentecostal church would also provide sandwiches in return for listening to a five-minute sermon. Wednesday was the turn of the Simon Community. Thursday evening saw the weekly visit of The Nuns on the Run, a wonderful group of – you’ve guessed it – nuns who always had the best food. On Friday night some volunteers from a city centre church would tour the streets with flasks of soup and bags of sandwiches, inviting us to visit their church for a meeting on Saturday with the promise of more food and hearing “testimonies” of people whose lives had supposedly been miraculously transformed through “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”.* There was a soup kitchen at the Partick Salvation Army, and another in a church hall whose name I forget but was truly horrendous. There were other charities too, almost always associated with churches and usually having some agenda beyond supporting vulnerable people.

These charities did valuable and necessary work. I cannot dispute that without them so many people would have struggled. Similarly, I have no doubt at all about the sincerity of the volunteers. But I’d make four main observations about my experiences:

a) Soup kitchens weren’t always very pleasant places and queuing up for handouts in a public square could be very dehumanising; I'm sure Dennis from Loaves and Fishes would confirm that passing members of the public could sometimes be actively hostile towards those of us waiting for a warm Loaves and Fishes meal. When this happened, unpleasant situations often ensued. This was hardly the best environment in which to receive help.

b) The support we received was sometimes made to feel like charity. I’ll go further – it stank of charity. In the case of one, I felt I was being treated more like a pet project than an individual. I’ll be polite and say the experience was hugely disempowering. Some of the charities were better than others in this respect, but my point remains valid – people in need deserve better than to be treated as a charitable cause.

c) Most of this support was offered by churches. I have absolutely no issue with that, as people of faith often feel motivated by that faith to do positive things for others. But how they provide that support matters. What I witnessed in Glasgow all those years ago from some quarters was essentially a form of spiritual colonialism that took advantage of our vulnerabilities.

d) Once I was homeless I soon found out people and places who could help, but when I was struggling to stay afloat there was nothing. Everything was geared towards "helping the homeless", rather than "preventing homelessness".

I ended up staying at a hostel run by a Christian charity, whose good intentions failed to mitigate the disservice to often vulnerable residents that stemmed from what I’ll diplomatically call a shockingly amateurish approach to support. My five months there were life-changing, and not in a particularly good way - although it could have been worse if I'd gone to the infamous Bellgrove Hotel instead. The thing is it could all have been prevented if, when I'd first encountered difficulties, there had been an easily available source of support.

There were no food banks in the 1990s. That is not to say there was no need. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that, should they have been around then, I would almost certainly never have found myself sleeping behind bins or living in a dreadful hostel managed by a man unhealthily obsessed with others’ sexual orientations. But those times were what they were.

There was, and still is, a need for something like soup kitchens – although the new model, typified by projects such as Food Cycle, has a very different ethos and outlook to the soup kitchens of 20 years ago. But food banks are much better than what I'll call their historical precursors – they help people to help themselves and, most importantly, provide help to people BEFORE a crisis occurs. Food banks are also much less dehumanising than standing in queues in public squares waiting for handouts in the rain while being jeered by people on their way to a night out at one of the swanky clubs.

I'm tired of hearing that, it wasn’t for the Conservatives’ destructive policies, food banks wouldn’t be necessary. The need has existed for decades. What has actually changed is the way support is being provided: over the last few is a new understanding has emerged in how to provide for that that treats people with respect and dignity as individuals, and understands the need for preventative as well as reactive support.

Food banks provide a safety net in the way alternatives were historically unable to. They’re not only for homeless people or those who receive DWP payments (I can’t bring myself to use the term “benefits”, a word that dishonesty implies an advantage). They’re also for people on low incomes, people whose self-employment means they can easily “slip through the net”, or people facing financial insecurity for other reasons.

I agree that government policy has contributed to the number of people using food banks. Evidence from the Trussell Trust points to the Universal Credit five week wait as a particular problem. But food banks are not necessary only for that reason. In any caring society there should always be a safety net because many of us do not know what is around the corner. Take the current lockdown situation as an example – how many have found themselves in food poverty as a result? People who have suddenly found themselves having to apply for Universal Credit, self-employed people who had to wait several months before receiving any kind of government help, and even those who are simply shielding at home have all needed help from food banks at this time.

My friend Jean has been volunteering with the Warrington food bank for the last eight years. She believes that food banks have evolved, and are continuing to evolve, to meet changing needs in new ways. She says: "it's [now]
something quite different from it's initial conception. From small beginnings opening 2 hours for 3 days a week it has grown into a much bigger organisation offering much more than food parcels 3 hrs a day, 5 days a week. Over the years the numbers of people needing the Foodbank has risen sharply especially amongst families with children."  Food banks do so much more than simply supply food: "We have also helped to collate the rise in child poverty statistics and other trends in the rising number of people living in poverty. I suppose we are ideally situated to collect this information as we are on the frontline so to speak."

Jean believes that government policies, especially "tightening the belt of austerity", has resulted in numbers using the food bank swelling.  But, contrary to the popular narrative, it's not only austerity that makes food banks necessary. Jean explains: "we have become an essential addition to help the most vulnerable people, [who often] have nowhere else to go. We're now an established and vital part of the fight to help those who find themselves unable to feed themselves and their families. We always look forward to the day when we are no longer needed but I fear that day is a long way off as yet."

wouldn’t say food banks are uplifting: they’re so much more than that. They’re certainly not uplifting to use. But they are necessary and are a sign of so much more than either a compassionate society or a broken, failing one. They’re a better – and more visible – way of supporting people through difficult times than the antiquated model of generous church leaders dishing out food to the grateful poor. Food banks are accountable and connected to a broader network of agencies and services including GPs, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Jobcentres, and various frontline professionals. They also allow communities to come together – and work together – in ways that traditional methods never did.

It's undeniably true that food bank use is increasing (this is the statistic that really matters, although it's difficult to quantify exactly how many individuals are being helped), but I imagine many being helped are people who wouldn't have been able to access food help previously. Some may have lived in areas where previously there was no kind of provision for those experiencing food poverty. Where the "old" support mechanism focused exclusively on people who were homeless, food banks now help people experiencing problems with delay to welfare payments, people affected by domestic violence, people with debt problems and people who are off work and only receiving statutory sick pay in place of their usual full wage. Isn't this a good thing?

Of course, food banks have their limitations, are far from perfect and are only one tool in the fight against poverty. Food alone does not end hunger. Ultimately I hope better models emerge with innovative and holistic approaches to meaningfully engage with the reasons behind food poverty and insecurity. There needs to be more “joined-up thinking”, but until that is realised I will neither join with Mr Rees-Mogg in heralding them as confirmation of societal compassion nor with those who see them only as an unfortunate consequence of government policy.

Yes, there are huge social injustices that stem from government policy and which have contributed to foodbank use. However, I believe food banks - or something similar - should have a place in any society that cares about tackling food poverty. The fact that food banks also exist in more egalitarian countries such as Norway and Sweden, if not on the same scale as in the UK, underlines this. However equitable and just society might be, it's always possible for people to become poor.

Food banks should never be the "norm", as they worryingly seem to be becoming in the UK, but I for one am grateful for that food banks exist. I only wish they’d been introduced years earlier.

* I may be completely wrong about which evenings the respective charities visited George Square - it's almost 25 years ago - but I don't think that matters.

Interestingly, I discovered that Dennis's Loaves and Fishes project is still around but is radically different. It is now running a food bank in East Kilbride and providing meals from Renfield St Stephen's Church in Glasgow. While this shows how dedicated Dennis has always been, it also points to the fact that the old models are largely obsolete and providers are refocusing their energies.

Food banks are replacing older ways of supporting vulnerable people, and they're doing this because mainly because they're a much better way of doing things. They're certainly better than anything we've had in the past.