Alison Cohen, Senior Director of Programs at Why Hunger in New York, suggests how the UK might resist the institutionalisation of charitable food aid by learning from the North American experience.

Food banks are precipitously on the rise in the UK in response to an increase in food insecurity.  Tellingly, this increase in food insecurity goes hand-in-hand with the ballooning of austerity measures and sanctions put in place by the UK government over the last decade or two. In other words, the rise in hunger in the UK is directly linked to an increase in poverty at the hands of the state. And current political trends do not suggest that the strong social safety net of yesteryear will be given new life in the UK any time soon.

In 2016 Brexit became a reality, ushering in what most political analysts say will be an era of economic precarity and social division. Will this also signal the permanence of third sector-supported food banking in the UK as a necessary means to feed those who are victims of this transformed economic and social landscape?  What would it take for the UK to resist the institutionalisation of food banking?

Certainly the US could teach our colleagues in the UK a thing or two as they wrestle with the forces that may guide them towards larger, well-resourced, more efficient and permanent third sector food aid institutions. And yet we are still in the early stages of developing our own shared analysis of what it will take to dismantle a system that provides what American scholar Jan Poppendieck has described as

“a moral safety valve” for those who wish “to do something about hunger” but not necessarily challenge the systems that make it so.

With 50 years of food banking in our history, a vast majority of us in the US have grown up with private charity as the normative model in addressing hunger.  What started as a strategy to address a temporary crisis is now, for many, a routine way of ensuring that their families get enough food and nutrition.  And it provides ample opportunities for the general public to ‘do good and feel good’.  Holiday-themed canned food drives are still prevalent in most religious institutions and schools, and corporate volunteer days to pack food baskets or serve up lunch to our nation’s food insecure are a regular occurrence at all of the 60,000+ food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens that can be found in every state in the union.

And while we’ve done a great job over the last 15 years or so of tweaking our food access model so that the emphasis is increasingly on nutritious and fresh food, at the end of the day food banks and food pantries continue to expand and systematise, with increasing funds going towards brick and mortar.

What we’ve become masters in is not so much abating food insecurity as institutionalising the corporate capture of charity.

Instead of exporting this sophisticated model of efficient food aid, we would rather create a dialogue with our UK colleagues about the emergent resistance to the collective legitimacy of food banking as a solution.  Several new regional networks and at least one national network of food aid providers have emerged in the US in the last 5 years to forge a new path and change the narrative about how to end hunger – from one that lifts up charity as the solution to one that calls for organising, building power and grounding solutions in social justice and a rights-based framework.

Meanwhile, a few strategies that the emerging food aid sector in the UK might consider:

  • Resist bricks and mortar! The more infrastructure you build, the more permanent the solutions you’re offering become.
  • Organise volunteers and those who are living with food poverty to develop a shared analysis of the root causes of the current food poverty crisis, rooted in both a historical and contemporary context.
  • Use the right to food, a legal framework embraced by the UK government, to hold the government accountable to its obligations to rights-holders – its citizens.
  • Build relationships with local government officials and advocate for systemic changes at local and regional levels.
  • Work with colleagues, organisations, experts by experience, and government agencies across sectors. Resist naming hunger as the problem because then food becomes the solution.  Get to the root causes and understand the economic, social, cultural and political systems, structures, biases and worldviews that perpetuate food poverty.

Click here to find out more about Why Hunger.

Charitable food provision as an emergency response: sharing evidence from Canada, the USA and the UK

How do we overcome the growing levels of household food insecurity in the UK and remove the need for food banks and other forms of charitable food aid? What can we learn from the experience of people in North America where food charity has become embedded into the social system? These are the kind of questions that lay behind a meeting held in London in November 2018 (held under the Chatham House rule) between leading academics, activists and representatives of key organisations working on food and poverty issues in the UK, USA and Canada.
Download a summary of the discussion here.