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As food-banking grows, who benefits? A critical dialogue between America and Manchester

It’s always a pleasure to invite a stranger to your city to share views from other places. But the pleasure is tinged with the frustration of knowing that things are not necessarily moving forward in the ways you’d like to convey to visitors.

Bridge 5 Mill in Ancoats felt an apt venue to host a discussion event about poverty, food charity and the responsibilities of business and government.

My great-grandfather’s 1940 novel about the rise of Labour politics in ‘Cottonpolis’-era Manchester depicted the Peterloo Massacre’s trampling of protest for ‘bread and liberty’, as well as a grim scene of a soup kitchen in Stevenson Square for people not “acquainted with poverty but overwhelmed by it”.

I couldn’t help but trace connections between the long history of Manchester’s inequalities, its geography of gentrifying industrial neighbourhoods, the swelling numbers of homeless people in the northern quarter needing the same soup kitchens that my great-grandfather’s protagonist believed would be rendered redundant by redistributive policy, and this beautifully-renovated mill, now home to a warren of organisations creating positive change.

Speaking at the food-bank event was American researcher Andy Fisher and Sheffield University researcher Hannah Lambie-Mumford.

Andy is the author of ‘Big Hunger: the unholy alliance between corporate America and anti-hunger groups’  and a long-time advocate and organiser of local and regional food systems through the Community Food Security Coalition

Hannah recently published her book ‘Food Bank Britain- the rise of food charity’ and has written widely on food poverty, often informing national policy debates.

The evening’s aim was to foster dialogue between experts from both the UK and America, and local food charities, businesses and concerned citizens.

What can individuals and organisations do to address destitution and hunger in our city? Do responsibilities and resources lie elsewhere?

The event was filmed and much of the talks and discussion can be viewed here and below..

I do hope this dialogue adds to the many current local conversations and collaborations aimed at tackling food poverty, food waste and food system challenges more broadly, particularly the nascent GM Food Poverty Alliance which throughout 2018 will build a preventative strategy for the region.

Andy Fisher’s UK visit aimed to share his belief that “the US has been exporting a bad model” of food banking that has served to perpetuate rather than eliminate hunger, and the poverty that underlies it.

He described charitable handouts of food as a “measly substitute for political power”, rooting food insecurity and the depoliticising charity response in deep historical inequalities that run along racial as well as economic lines.

As an ‘undercover’ food bank client, he experienced the inherent power dynamics of the charity encounter, the stigma and shame that he glimpsed from the other side when volunteering at a food bank and caught himself monitoring clients’ behaviour, checking they weren’t taking too many potatoes and being told to watch out for notoriously ‘greedy’ clients. I myself have experienced the serious discomfort of ‘policing’ poor peoples’ food access while volunteering at food banks during my own research.

Andy’s book locates the indignity and ineffectiveness of food banking over time in a broader dynamic (food insecurity has overall barely changed since food banking exploded under Reagan-era austerity): the corporate partnerships through which US food banks redistribute food surpluses.

Companies like Walmart cause both want and waste, through paying low wages (and costing taxpayers billions in state benefits to top these up) and overproducing food because ingredients are so cheap that it’s easier to waste surplus than risk losing custom. It is at the interface of waste and want, Fisher argues, that food banks lie.

Andy recognised important differences between UK and US food systems in relation to hunger and charity, but also key similarities: the growth of charity to meet gaps left by welfare retrenchment (which Poppendieck1 argues allows government to further withdraw entitlements), the “unholy alliance” of food charities and anti-hunger groups with corporate donors (which limits their capacity to advocate for systemic solutions) and link between corporate partnerships and the questionable quality of food available to charity clients, especially in terms of health (he noted FareShare’s fundraising campaign encouraging the purchase of Coca-Cola).

Charities measuring their success in quantities of food redistributed and people fed is, in fact, a measure of “our failure to prevent poverty in the first place”, Andy argued. This mirroring of corporate growth models is also evident in the vast infrastructural scale and professionalisation of food banks. He advocates an end to capital campaigns in pursuit of such growth, which he maintains serve elite interests while perpetuating food insecurity.

As the UK debates how to tackle food wastage, the unintended consequences of growing redistribution infrastructures should serve as a warning.

Andy’s talk ended with hopeful examples of food banks and campaign groups advocating for structural change, including providing healthier food and provision models that train and employ people on low incomes.

He also acknowledged some encouraging preventative work he’s seen in the UK, especially in Scotland. Fundamentally, he concluded, we can’t pretend to be solving hunger “meal by meal” without addressing systemic causes- we’re just keeping people impoverished. International alliances, as well as food banks thinking strategically and long-term about their roles and responsibilities, can solve hunger, not the replacement of a right to food with a charitable gift of food.

Andy was followed by Hannah Lambie-Mumford, one of the best-informed researchers into current configurations of policy, food charity and food insecurity.

Hannah noted a key difficulty in current UK debates: a lack of consistent definitions of the policy problem, accompanied by a lack of consistent monitoring (the current bill to legislate for food insecurity measurement has been delayed).

In the absence of national measurements, she nevertheless brought us up to date with recent surveys, such as the Food Standards Agency’s Food and You survey which included a food security module in 2017, revealing 13% of people living in ‘marginal’ food security and 8% in ‘low’ or ‘very low’ food security.

Both Hannah's research and that of others has laid bare what she describes as a near-symbiotic relationship between welfare retrenchment and the growth of food charity as communities have tried to respond to growing evidence of need.

While offering important spaces of solidarity and care, she noted, food charity is an inadequate solution for reasons including limited accessibility, social stigma, and supply struggling to meet demand. These are not unnoticed by food bank staff and volunteers, and have generated both moral outrage and public debate that offers chances to decide how to proceed.

However, she noted the “political hot potato” that food insecurity has become, precluding constructive dialogue and cohesive policy-making. On a more positive note, she pointed to the End Hunger UK campaign, which has galvanised frontline organisations into the coordinated movement behind the soon-to-launch GM Food Poverty Alliance.

Hannah and Andy’s talks, despite their research contexts lying on opposite sides of the pond, raised shared problems and opportunities.

Both insisted on the need for national legislation and resourcing that supports communities to thrive. They urged food charities to participate in advocacy for root-cause solutions around fair wages, adequate benefits and healthier food provision.

Policy-making should be inclusive of those with lived experience of poverty as well as embracing multiple levels of governance and organisation, from neighbourhoods to global alliances.

In the run-up to Manchester’s Green Summit, attention to food should not be dispersed across departments and strategies, but recognised as both fundamental to human flourishing and a tool to more sustainable, enjoyable, just world.

1Poppendieck, J. (1998) Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. Viking Press.