Food banks: where is the state?

Back in 1971 the American philosopher John Rawls published a book with the purpose of establishing principles of justice for the basic structure of society. In A Theory of Justice Rawls argued that the best way to decide on these principles was to imagine to be in an hypothetical “original position” where one is placed under a “veil of ignorance”, under which he has no knowledge of our social status, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, skills, and so on.

The question asked by Rawls was: if we were not to know whether we are at the bottom or at the top of society, what would be the basic safeguards measures we would want society to guarantee us?

Presumably, anyone would agree that access to food is one of them. In fact, the international covenant on economic and cultural rights, which has been ratified by all Western countries, except for the United States, contains the right to food. It is perhaps surprising then that in many Western societies being able to not be hungry is still not a given.

In these days the British government is faced with renewed pressure to address the problem of hunger in the country after a new report funded by the Church of England and written by an all-party committee shed new light on the use of food banks in the UK. Food banks provide food aid to people in acute need, often following referral by a health or social care professional. Food banks are mainly run by charities, the largest of which, the Trussel Trust, is currently running 420 food banks in the whole country. Demand for food aid has increased 20-fold since 2010 and there are today 1 million families relying on emergency food hand-outs. Last year the Red Cross even offered to distribute food parcels for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Yet despite the wide diffusion of the phenomenon, until now there was not much official data on it.

The new report, Feeding Britain, identifies several economic forces that have caused living costs in Britain to increase over the past decade. A high rate of general inflation, food inflation, housing inflation, and fuel inflation, together with a slow rise in wages are the main ones. Another report commissioned by the Church of England, together with other bodies, and published in November had found that people who turn to food banks have usually experienced one or more major crises in their life, such as job loss, bereavement, ill health or relationship breakdown. Therefore, rather than low income in itself, an income shock seemed to be one of the determinant factors. Moreover, triggering food banks referral was often linked to the operation of the benefit system, which is often too slow in stepping in. In addition to the delays in benefit payments the old fallback system of loans, the social fund, has been shredded while rules for punitive sanctions, cutting off people’s income for weeks or months, have been tightened, triggering a four-fold increase in their use. 

Still, politicians deny that there is a link between the impact of welfare policies and the rise in demand for food aid. The blame game tends to shift responsibility for hunger from the states to the poor. In the past few days, politicians have argued that the poor are hungry because they cannot cook, because parents do not look hard enough for a job, and that the increase in demand for food aid is simply due to the fact that it is a free good: who wouldn’t want free food if it is available? These are blindfolded statements ignoring the findings of the two reports mentioned which show that food banks are seen by users as a last resort, to turn to when other forms of support had been exhausted. People using food banks have often mention feelings of shame and embarrassment. When a phenomenon is so widespread it is not possible to speak of “individual failures” anymore, it is evident that there is something not working with the system.

The new report, Feeding Britain, outlines 77 recommendations as part of a strategy to eliminate huger. Food banks and the church, along with supermarkets and food manufactures, are proposed as core agencies in a new national network to abolish hunger.

Crucially, this implies that these agencies would continue to take on responsibilities that lie with the state, replacing it in providing for citizens.

Similar issues are arising in other European countries as well. In Italy, where one in ten people is in a state of absolute poverty, food banks are run by charities, which receive funds from the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived and from the National Fund for the Poor. Yet, charities have to fight for funds to be allocated for food provision programs. Recently, the government tried to pass a law (legge Stabilità) allocating zero funds to the National Fund for the Poor, contrary to the 10 millions allocated last year. Five millions were allocated only after the largest organization providing food aid, Fondazione Banco Alimentare, and other charities protested.

It seems that governments are forgetting that, no matter what the cause for hunger is, it is the state’s duty to make sure citizens do not starve. If not, it is time to go back under Rawls’ veil of ignorance and think about what kind of society we want to live in. 

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