1 May 2020
Katie works for a food bank in a rural town in NE England. The food bank’s seen a significant increase in demand since lockdown started and anticipates operating on this level for at least the rest of the year.
I’ve been working for a food bank for a small town in the rural north-east of England for the past 5 years. Most of our volunteers are elderly and when the pandemic started, we lost 80% of them due to self-isolation in the face of a 300% increase in demand. It’s fair to say that things have been busy, and we’re giving out more food parcels in a single day now than we’d do in a typical busy month.
We’re based in a building owned by the council, so there’s always been some measure of cooperation between our charity and the local authorities. In a small town like this, everyone knows everyone else, meaning that there’s a greater need to get along with everyone and avoid being overtly political. Of course, the existence of a food bank is itself a sign that the state is failing in its basic obligations towards its citizens. Prior to the pandemic starting, we’d often be faced with the attitude from the council and individuals alike that our town didn’t need a food bank; we’d have to justify our own existence, over and over again, before we could even have a conversation about what we needed.
Things have changed dramatically in the past few weeks. We’ve been amazed by the amount of donations from the general public and are also finding that we’re overwhelmed with offers of help from the local authorities: from the police wanting us to signpost them towards people we suspect might be suffering from domestic abuse, all the way to the council making deliveries for us. Some of this support is helpful, but it raises the question of where this support has been for the last 5 years. One of the first suggestions from the council was that we should rebrand; instead of being called a food bank, we should be called a ‘community food hub’, or something along those lines. On the face of it, it’s a well-intentioned idea. Asking for help with food is a difficult thing to do, pandemic or no pandemic, and stigma is a real problem and something we actively try and combat, although it’s a losing battle in the face of the divisive, right-wing press in this country. However, it misses the point that it’s difficult to ask whether you’ve had help from the food bank 50 times before or whether it’s your first time. It buys into the idea of the ‘deserving poor’, and implicitly goes along with the assumption that people who ordinarily rely on food banks made a choice, somewhere along the line, to opt into poverty. The Tory-led council’s immediate priority seemed instead to be serving the interests of those who panicked when they saw M&S had run out of toilet paper, while ignoring those who’d been struggling for years as a direct result of the policies the government has implemented.
A week after lockdown, the council had an article published in the local paper in which they claimed a lot of the credit for the work done by the food bank, saying that we were organised through town councillors and administered from the centre. They stated that they had yet to see a council operating together as a team with such dedication and efficiency. Two mutual aid groups exist in the town, both of them set up on the same day, one run by the council, and the other a grassroots initiative. The group run by the council does not deliver food to people because they have not figured out a way of collecting payment from them (a problem they apparently do not face when collecting council tax or fines). Although there is something obscene about biting your tongue and working with Conservatives who have voted for policies that have inflicted so much suffering on this country, it would have been possible for the two groups to complement one another – grassroots groups do not have to worry about jumping through the same regulatory hoops as a council-led group would, and individuals can reach private arrangements as to how they reimburse one another for shopping and so on. But that only works if the council signposts people towards the grassroots group, something that hasn’t been happening.
Part of the issue is that as a community, we’re not used to the concept of mutual aid; anyone getting support will get it from friends, from charities, or from the council. If friends are unable to help, therefore, they’ll be supported by an existing organisation that they’re already familiar with, and there’s a reticence to approach a new, loosely-organised mutual aid group. The council, too, is unused to grassroots support initiatives, and the all-or-nothing approach – claiming full credit for the efforts of a separate organisation, or totally ignoring new initiatives – will ultimately harm people.
It would be stupid to pretend that this is accidental, because it forms part of the carefully-constructed neo-wartime narrative that we’re all in this together. Clap for carers, because their sacrifice is appreciated, all the while ignoring the fact that if we had had the appropriate support and structures in place from the national and local authorities who have been systematically dismantling those structures for years now, no such sacrifice would have been needed.