ARE FOOD BANKS A GOOD THING?

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By Dr Conor McCabe

historian and author

In December 2013 the Scottish government published a report into the dramatic rise in food banks over the past four years. It found that ‘welfare reform, benefit delays, benefit sanctions and falling incomes have been the main factors driving the recent trend observed of increased demand for food aid’ and that reports suggest that these factors are replicated across the UK.

It is not just welfare recipients who find themselves availing of food banks but also people working on low pay and reduced hours in the brave new world of the trickle-down economy.

Access to the food parcels is conditional: in the case of the Trussell Trust, the single largest producer of food banks in the UK, each request is judged by a ‘care professional.’

The charity of course has an interest in framing its operating procedures in such managementspeak, but striped of its marketing lexicon it is clear that what these banks demand of people is that they beg for food.

Sherlock Holmes is not the only Victorian to have been reinvented for the 21st century – the middle class do-gooder is also back to sort the wheat from the chaff.

There is, of course, a central government report into food banks.

The Defra-commissioned report was completed in the summer of 2013 and quietly shelved until February 2014.

It blamed, among other things, “high global food prices” for making “food proportionately less affordable for low-income households in the UK”.

What it failed to mention was the role of financial speculation in creating a price bubble in wholesale food prices.

In 2013, researchers at ETH Zurich and the UN Conference on Trade and Development found that up to 70 percent of commodity price changes, including wholesale prices for wheat and other grains, were due to ‘self-generated activities’ on financial markets.

Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement, in a letter to the Financial Times in March of that year said that it further supported “the substantial body of evidence that excessive financial speculation is distorting commodity prices”.

The very same markets that were saved with unprecedented state funds in the aftermath of the 2008 crash are now a causal factor in the growing unaffordability of food.

This is before we factor in the millions of jobs lost to the speculative mania, as well as the substitution of low-pay and zero hour contracts for a living wage. Poverty is structural.

The re-emergence of food poverty in the wake of the banking crisis is no coincidence. The use of bailout funds to garner profits for financial institutions via speculation on wholesale food prices; the litany of tax avoidance measures which serve to make such speculation a profitable game; and the utter refusal to engage in genuine job-led growth – in all of this we see that food banks are a plaster not for the poor but for the rich.

Food banks exist to justify unliveable wages and financial profit. The fact that they ease those nagging middle class consciences is an added bonus.

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