As the CEO of the South West’s biggest food redistribution charity, I have seen how vital food support is to vulnerable members of our communities, not just during coronavirus but before that too.
FareShare South West is part of the national FareShare UK network and from the South West alone we pick, pack, and deliver surplus food to over 260 front line charities and organisations who then supply thousands with nutritious meals and food parcels. Without this, I am acutely aware of what society might look like should organisations like FareShare – and the amazing partners we work with – not exist.
Prior to coronavirus, it was not uncommon both within the media and when talking to people directly, that the tone of judgement would arise when discussing food support.
The ‘undeserving poor’ being a simplistic narrative that many got on board with. I would not have predicted that a global health pandemic would be the catalyst to change that. It has brought the topic of food support so acutely into focus, not just for those interested in social issues but to the broader public.
It seems apparent through both the tone in the media and overwhelming acts of kindness and generosity in communities to support each other, that attitudes have shifted – at least temporarily – from judgement to generosity.
Those that once saw food banks as a place for only a certain stereotype to visit have since acknowledged the importance of this support as they or those ‘like them’ have had to access this emergency food for the first time. The crisis has demonstrated how close many of us in the UK are to needing to access provision like this.
However, it has not, as many have now recognised, ‘been a leveller’. Instead, it has laid bare the inequalities that exist in our society, and the most vulnerable have been exposed to the worst of this virus. Our charity alone has had to more than double its output of food since the beginning of March.
The pandemic has confronted all members of society – perhaps uncomfortably – with the reality that food poverty existed, exists and will only worsen as economic uncertainty and job losses deepen.
Coronavirus has highlighted our fragility as a society and perhaps this has engendered a little more humanity in people, forcing us away from simplistic ‘comfortable’ narratives to more nuanced understandings of the complex issues that lead to people to requiring support for a basic human need: to eat.
It’s too soon to say that the stigma of food support has been entirely removed, but certainly, the likes of Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford speaking out about his experience and the government’s plans to scrap food vouchers in the summer holidays for children eligible for Free School Meals has helped.
The government’s U-turn was welcomed as continuing support over the summer, whilst many families face hardship unlike anything we’ve known for decades, is critical. However, we know from our work with schools that the Free School Meals ‘label’ has carried stigma and that parents sometimes decline support even if their children are eligible.
We know that schools have created systems to ensure other students don’t know that their peers receive food support, to ensure children use it and don’t just go hungry to avoid embarrassment.
We hope that a figure like Marcus speaking honestly about how vital these were for him and his family will go some way in rectifying that stigma felt by both students and parents.
However, food provision for those children on free school meals is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that many students don’t meet the criteria, often because their parents work for minimum wage but in fact have as much disposable income as those who receive benefits. The children of the ‘working poor’ seem to get missed in a one size fits all (or some!) government policy.
This is where access to alternative food support is key, often facilitated by the charity sector. This is what at present can prevent these children from going needlessly hungry: from a free for all breakfast club in school, to lunch at holiday projects or in local community centres or visits to the local food bank.
As a basic human need, ensuring people get food could be the starting block to getting the support they need to lift themselves out of poverty or hardship. Ensuring parents close to or on the breadline can feel assured their child will get breakfast each day, could prevent them from slipping into more chronic levels of debt and food poverty.
Food support is so often a vital preventative measure to ensure individuals and families do not fall deeper into complex and vulnerable situations.
We know that before Covid, the issue of food poverty and child hunger was one that should have made a country ashamed, but instead, it made those experiencing it feel shame. We judge and turn our nose up at those things we don’t understand, but as our understanding grows and changes – illuminated by a global health pandemic and the words of a premier league footballer – I only hope that the stance of generosity towards food support remains and grows.
Whilst thousands of tonnes of in-date, good quality surplus food exists and would otherwise be wasted, why should anyone go needlessly hungry?
Julian Mines is the CEO of FareShare South West
Main photo of Ayaan and Ben at Millpond Primary Breakfast Club, provided courtesy of FareShare South West