Food banks: What has happened to this country that we have now come to this?

Charity is for extras, not essentials – which are the state’s responsibility

Sean O'Grady
Monday 08 December 2014 20:36
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Food is stacked on shelving at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton
Food is stacked on shelving at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton

Without wishing to sound bourgeois, I was in Waitrose on Saturday and, past the checkout, I noticed a large cardboard box about a yard high. It was labelled “Lewisham food bank”, and the prosperous customers of the Beckenham, Kent, branch of Waitrose were being asked to donate to the poor in a less well-heeled district. The last time I had seen something like that was for people to put pet food in a collecting bin for the cats’ and dogs’ homes.

Well, the people of Beckenham are generous, and the food bank box was brimful with sensibly chosen groceries – tinned spaghetti and baked beans, multi-packs of UHT milk and the like. But, heartening as that was in its way, it upset me. I found it condescending, and I wondered what had happened to this country that we had come to this. I remember thinking “third world”. Little did I realise that much the same thoughts had been going through the mind of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Maybe he too had had such a Damascene moment in his local Waitrose.

Now there’s a debate about who’s to blame. It can be widely attributed. Labour for messing up the economy so fewer people have decent jobs, and a proper wage; the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition for messing up benefits payments, delaying them for little purpose. It is certainly a political failure, and a shameful indictment of the country. But that is not as important as something else. For food bank donations erode the sense that the welfare state is something we all pay into and something we will all draw upon.

And we all do – the NHS, the old-age pension, many working-age benefits. It’s an exaggeration to say this, but I will in order to make my point: if you believe that your responsibilities to the rest of society are discharged by leaving some cans of beans in a box for the poor rather than paying your fair share in taxes, then we really have returned to a Victorian, if not medieval, mindset.

I am left wondering whether I should add to the overflowing food bank box with extra groceries. I am considering what might be the best things to buy – not frivolous stuff like a jar of pickled walnuts, but not the cheapest thing on the shelf either. Maybe some beer? Or does that go against the vaguely puritan spirit of the exercise? Or some nice biscuits or something to add to the beans and spaghetti. But is that not an awful feeling? Here I am, making decisions about whether someone else’s kids are going to have plain or chocolate digestives for tea, depending on my whim, a stranger.

Charity should be there to do extra things the state cannot do much about, such as wildlife conservation in Africa. We should not have to rely on altruism to feed our poorest citizens. I will give to the food bank, but uneasily. As I say, what has happened to our country?

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