Food Bank bureaucracy and Christian charity
From Brother Ivo:
Nobody who is familiar with the Gospels can fail to be struck by a very Jewish preoccupation with food. From the first miracle at Cana, through the feeding of the 5000, to the Last Supper and the post-resurrection fish barbecue by the side of Lake Galilee, there is a plain link between food, family, community and God's love. Food matters to God.
Even when handing Peter his wider commission, Jesus uses the metaphor of food, instructing him to ‘feed my sheep’. He does not issue to Peter a direct set of detailed instructions; he does not tell Peter to ‘care for them’, ‘protect’, ‘teach’ or ‘keep them in order’. The chosen model is that of feeding. The blend of practicality, necessity, pastoral concern, sharing and love is all embodied in the duty which would not normally fall to an institutional leader. Peter is to be like a Jewish mother, a slave or the lowliest shepherd, all at the bottom of the social hierarchy: he must first and foremost ‘feed’ them.
The Church has always spread in the context of food. When the 70 are sent out to evangelise the world, they are sent with next to nothing by way of missionary resources, and no provisions. Jesus gives them no alternative but to place them in a position where they are utterly dependent on the hospitality of strangers. It may not be stretching interpretation too far to see in this an echo of the conclusion of the story of the road to Emmaus, where Jesus makes himself known in the breaking of the bread.
Mediaeval monasteries were places where travellers could receive this ministry of food sharing, and the relief of poverty was one of the key illustrations when Elizabeth I passed the inaugural statute defining charity in 1601.
Our pastoral duties continue. There are several major charities, consciously religious or not, which deal with the relief of hunger in the developing world. No Christian can ignore his or her duty to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ with regular charitable giving for the meeting of the needs of the needy neighbour.
Food provision has always had political dimension. There are international discussions on conserving the world’s fish stocks as industrial fishing reaches corners of the earth of which Galilean fishermen knew nothing. Closer to home, criminal fraud now exists in the food chain and the cry goes up of ‘Do something!’.
Yet amidst the plenty of the well-stuffed supermarkets, Britain has a growing number of Food Banks.
At one level this is extraordinary: the quantity, quality and safety of food have rarely been surpassed, especially for the ordinary person. Brother Ivo's great grandmother struggled to feed 12 children on a baker’s wage and though she was reputed to be a lady of charity, giving when she could to the Salvation Army, her credulity might have been stretched to hear the modern discourse about Food Banks.
In some quarters we hear that this is the return of poverty to the land. The bald statistics of Food Bank creation are recited in the House of Commons as evidence of economic mismanagement. When this argument is deployed, one rarely hears it linked to Government policy on inflation which tends to dis-incentivise the poor of any inclination to save a little for a rainy day.
In other quarters there is a stern lack of sympathy. Food Bank supplicants (Brother Ivo shies from the ubiquitous ‘client’) are there by a wide range of circumstance, and Jesus’ heart was always open to those in need howsoever they got there. Some, nevertheless, react as if the Food Bank is another free hand-out to the undeserving, encouraging profligacy.
Yet the rules of the Trussell Trust, which is the impetus behind most of the growing number of these voluntary initiatives, are quite specific. The food offered is generally sufficient for three days; ordinarily only three visits a year are allowed. Anyone seeking assistance arrives via an approved voucher-issuer, which may be a doctor’s surgery, a Social Services department, or another charity.
Far from being an open-ended encouragement to the profligate, the system is deliberately designed to be of a short-term limited character, and if there is a problem in the system, it is that those wishing to issue vouchers also take on a responsibility for enquiring into circumstances, keeping records and ‘signposting’ individuals to other agencies, whether that be a benefits agency, a debt counselling service or women's aid hostel.
It is the accompanying responsibility that presents a problem and causes the occasional bottleneck. Such a control mechanism may be necessary to prevent the abuse of charitable giving, but many Churches – which constitute the principle source of volunteers and food donations – are simply not geared for dispensing that kind of advice and the paperwork that goes with it. Finding your way to an approved voucher-issuer is not always very easy.
In some areas the congregations give, the volunteers wait, but those in need don't arrive. The vicar’s private store cupboard is returning as a necessary precursor to the bureaucratic delays of those issuing the vouchers for the Food Bank, which itself exists because official channels cannot always move quickly enough to feed the needy under statutory schemes. If the issuers of vouchers do not issue enough, the food in the store cupboards can slip out of date.
Whenever we hear of Food Banks in Parliament they are presented by the Opposition as if they are symptomatic of famine in the land. The greater reality is that they are symptomatic of things altogether different.
If Brother Ivo's great grandmother were to have seen this problem in the midst of riches beyond her dreams she might have asked: ‘Where are the families?’; ‘Where are the neighbours?’; ‘Where are the Friendly Societies?’ – in fact, all the things that existed in the pre-bureaucratic state.
Above all, the Food Banks are needed because the state cannot do everything, and the further the administration of the solution is removed from the people and their problems, the less efficient it can be.
There is a further problem looming. A recent poll in Bulgaria showed that 54 per cent of respondents would like to exchange their lives of penury there for life in one of Europe’s richer countries. The UK is attractive with its culture of acceptance and welcoming the stranger.
Will the Government open the Welfare State to meet such an influx? It seems unlikely, not least because it would be politically unpalatable and economically unaffordable. If the Welfare State is closed to those exercising newly-acquired rights, does anyone believe that private charity such as the Food Bank movement could stand the strain of open borders?
Brother Ivo is confident that those of Christian conscience will be moved by need wherever it comes from. The Trussel Trust is not restrictive in its mission statement, adopting Jesus’ teaching found in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35): ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ How good that we remember and respond.
(Posted by Brother Ivo)