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The Fascinating Debate Over Food Banks in Britain

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Meet Joanna. She's a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can't afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She's lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don't have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that's all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there's a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

Budget Menu is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care that our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters -- for us they're just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven't decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain's food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut ("sanctioned" is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

"Food banks should not replace the 'normal' safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support," was the quote from Church Action on Poverty's chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, "what he said."

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and "aw hell naw" you would expect from Britain's leading left-wing paper. The Independent -- The Guardian's slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin -- also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun -- the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid -- ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What's interesting about these -- to an American anyway -- is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

"This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat," the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. "This ... is a food bank."

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, "It is obviously a tragedy-and a scandal-that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry." But it also made sure to lament that the report "politicized" the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator -- basically a right-wing Atlantic -- in a series of articles that investigated Britain's newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, "food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain's social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that they haven't been around for longer."

But this point -- food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they're a triumph of private generosity -- is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don't simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, "Job Centres" or social services agencies -- the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can't use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

"Food banks are absolutely not part of the welfare system we run." That's Lord Freud the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. "Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported."

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro, responded in an interview with The Independent: "It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century," thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don't disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can't provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that's a bad thing.

David Cameron's Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver "The Big Society," a country where people don't rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and "social entrepreneurs" are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, "Great! What shall we improve next?"

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can't do become things the government won't do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government's problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I've lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don't know which side I'm rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA functioned like it was supposed to, I wouldn't have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don't know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can't say they didn't know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna's celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that costs nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she's already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She's reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.