RACHEL JOHNSON: Don't moan about benefit cuts... do something to helpBy Rachel Johnson
Distended bellies, stick legs, and flies crawling into the gummy eyes of starving children. And Africa.
We don’t think of lumpy people in cheap parkas, queueing at food banks, or spooning in the Heinz Cream of Tomato at soup kitchens.
But this is where we are.
Ray Woolford is an estate agent with a moustache who also runs a food bank in Deptford, South-East London.
Four times a week, Ray does the run to Waitrose in Greenwich to pick up food going past its sell-by date, but he says that shoppers are so skint that they lift stuff from his trolley before he can get it to the food bank.
There it goes fast, with only one protein – a tin of tuna, a jar of mini-frankfurters – per week, per family, and only to those with vouchers.
Last week, a long-awaited Defra report into the 170 per cent increase in the use of such banks contradicted a minister’s previous claim that the spike was down to ‘increased supply’.
Like the experts hired by Defra, Ray attributes the rise in food banks not to supply, but to need, due to three factors: stagnant wages, a 30 per cent rise in food prices, and the new punitive sanctions regime that’s led to 818,000 claimants having their benefits docked since October.
Or, to sum up, the fact that millions of people are broke.
‘I’ve nothing against carrot and stick, but once you’re sanctioned, you’re off benefits and you get nothing for 13 weeks,’ he says. ‘No voucher, no help with the Oyster card, nothing.
Atos [the IT company that assesses whether benefits claimants are fit to work] is paid not to pay people their benefits. There’s no hardship fund, nothing.’
And now our bishops are agitating, too. ‘Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry,’ they wrote last week, as they slammed Cam for the growing crisis of food poverty here on God’s green English earth.
They decried the fact that half a million have resorted to food banks, that 5,500 have been admitted to hospital either with or for malnutrition, and blamed the Tories’ moral mission to reform welfare, a system that ‘should provide a robust last line of defence against hunger’.
Yes, grim. But I dispute the Right Reverends’ claim that it’s only the Government’s responsibility to make sure nobody in Britain is ever hungry.
At the moment – and Chancellor George Osborne points out that the recovery is shaky as he continues with his £12billion cuts in welfare this year – it’s all about what the Government CAN do.
It’s not about what it would like to do if, to deploy a popular phrase, money was no object.
To say the Government should be a bulwark against hunger sounds good. But it’s like saying it should stop the floods.
‘I’d close my food bank tomorrow if they made sure people could get food,’ says Woolford.
The bishops have asked us to fast at Lent to raise awareness of food poverty and – you are hereby warned – I’ve done some telly for Sports Relief, also to raise awareness of food poverty. At the end of filming, I came away very aware of food poverty.
I also came away knowing that while there are limits to what the state can achieve, there are no limits to what we can do, individually.
Some of our finest institutions have nothing to do with the state, and are all the better for it. The National Trust. The Women’s Institute. The Royal Academy. The Ramblers’ Association. The Scouts.
As the axe falls, what we used to call ‘Big Society’, ie ‘people’ has quietly occupied the no man’s land between public and private sector. We have time-lapsed back to the Victorian age, before Socialism with its capital S, to a time distinguished by public service, charity, and voluntary provision – to selflessness with no thought of reward.
Then there were mutual and friendly societies, voluntarily-run hospitals.
Today we have soup kitchens, feeding centres and up to 500 food banks run in association with activists at community centres and churches.
At one, Trinity Methodist Church in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, I sat with the homeless and hungry at a properly laid table. Volunteers in aprons served us, then cleared our plates. Nobody was paid. It didn’t feel like a hand-out.
As we all inhaled second helpings of delicious veggie shepherd’s pie made and dished up by Diane Kilgour from FoodCycle, it was hard to work out who was giving and who was receiving.
There are 60,000 social enterprises in this country, for which hundreds of thousands of people work. But don’t sit back. They are all small, and underfunded.
As the bishops say, ‘this is a national crisis, and one we must rise to’. I agree. Our country does need you. For many, there’s not a lot of the state left, but oodles of potential do-gooders out there. So come on. It’s down to us, not ‘them’.
Follow Ray on Twitter@Raywoolford;
Make a Donation to our Independent Food Bank that also feeds pets.
We Care food Banks; Sort code 08 92 99 Account number 65659328