Ringing the bells of the City of London’s bell tower was almost exactly a decade ago, and a change was beginning. I was just starting the work that led to 2015’s Food Bank Boost, so I still remember the day.
In fact, I often do when I spot it, as I look back on the months of March and April, when I met volunteers from a local food bank called Bracknell Cares every day to collect fresh produce from local farmers and have it loaded into the freezer.
I remember being so moved by the bravery and sacrifice of the volunteers, who worked seven days a week to provide a tiny but essential service to those who desperately needed it. That March began my journey into a world that saw many people living in poverty in every community, and it inspired me to spend the next four years in the public sector, advocating for welfare justice, and the role of government in supporting people in distress.
Backing charities offering emergency food aid will keep the government honest Read more
Ten years on, I still feel that same sense of amazement and serenity. Now, sadly, I would agree that the mass events of 2016 put food banks under a different spotlight, but we’ve got them right back on. That year marked a tipping point – a catalyst for a revolt against a system which only sees one side of the coin: the people who are struggling pay their bills, pay their rent and support their kids.
But on the other side are people like you and me, who want a more just and fair society and a society that works for everyone, not just for a few. It was that shift, I believe, that prompted the government’s Action Plan for Welfare Reform, and subsequently the Halt the Raging Riots Act of 2017.
So it’s not surprising that I don’t think raising awareness about food banks, in particular this Christmas, is the answer – and I think we need to have the underlying conversation around the sustainability of the charity sector, and how charities can and should be reshaped to meet the needs of the people they are there to help.
But what is surprising is that the charity sector could be bringing about this change on its own. Social enterprises, community groups and people organising food bank collections on your local high street are living out their own idea of charity in an everyday way.
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That’s why it’s such a shame that charity funding has been put under scrutiny, meaning we have seen less funding available for groups that are looking to put the big picture behind them. The instinct for many people is to stop that kind of work and simply start ripping it down, whether that’s making charities follow the letter of the law or arguing that what we need is corporate investment.
This wave of hard work is alive and well. Some of the most talented and inspiring and hands-on people I’ve worked with in my time as a welfare rights campaigner have been from the charitable sector.
But clearly the issues aren’t going away, and the softening up of the industry hasn’t got people’s backs.
We need to hold the government to account, for the injustices of austerity, and the poverty that comes with it. We need to hold the media to account for showing simplistic headlines about a better life without reflection on who we think it’s for and how. And we need to recognise that the only way we can stop food banks is by giving more people the chance to realise a fair future for themselves and their families.
Ealing United Trades Union Council is holding a food bank appeal for December in Marylebone High Street on 12 December from 12pm-4pm.
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