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Expert Comment: We need to radically rethink the very nature of food banks
Monday 8 December 2014
Dr Bryce Evans is Senior lecturer in History and co-Director of ‘Manna Community Kitchen’, a social enterprise which seeks to address food poverty by extending the food bank model into communal eating.
After being awarded a fellowship by the Winston Churchill Trust, he travelled to Peru - home of the ‘community kitchen’ - to study how this movement works abroad and if it can be replicated in the UK.
Here, he responds to Archbishop Justin Welby's comments on a new parliamentary report on food poverty...
Food is being wasted in "astonishing" amounts, wrote Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently. The Archbishop has backed a parliamentary report on food poverty and hunger in the UK which calls for bigger food banks, better advice for people on how to claim benefits, and greater state support for the national food bank network (currently administered by the Trussell Trust).
The call for greater state support for food banks is welcome and necessary. But to really improve food security in the UK, we need to radically rethink the very nature of food banks.
Too often, food banks are seen as the last resort of the lowliest in our society. In many cases, they function as a sticking plaster. There is a desperate need to move beyond this image of doling out food to stigmatised recipients. What we need is fresh food and people eating together: in short, we’ve lost our sense of community and passion around food.
The debate following the report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry needs to go further by addressing the following three problems:
1) Lack of Cookery Skills
There are many stories of food bank recipients simply not knowing how to incorporate such food into a meal or – worse still – not being able to prepare the most basic non-perishables (for instance people boiling bags of rice in their kettles). For this reason, it is vital that all food banks come to incorporate a kitchen where food can be cooked and prepared as a meal. A good solution would be recipients cooking meals with food bank volunteers and thus gaining transferable cookery skills. At the very least, food bank recipients should be given cards instructing how to incorporate non-perishable food into a meal which also includes fresh produce.
2) Loneliness, Depression and Isolation
The UK food bank model needs to resemble the community kitchen movement witnessed in Latin American countries more, where food preparation and consumption is a social event. The basic act of communally preparing and sharing a meal can have far-reaching consequences in combating loneliness, isolation, mental illness, and dislocation and creating a sense of community. If all food banks had a cafe or just a basic kitchen attached to them, these 'intangibles' could be addressed, consequently alleviating pressures on the NHS.
3) Nutritional Deficiency
We all know that getting our five a day is essential to nutritional well being. But food bank food is non-perishable and therefore non-fresh. Bigger food banks are fine, but if food banks are to increase their economies of scale, why not include the provision of fresh food too? There is a need to work more closely with supermarkets and grocers to ensure that a larger proportion of the food that they donate out to food banks is fresh, thus improving the health and well-being of recipients through ensuring greater nutritional value. This would also eliminate food waste, but would require better dialogue between food banks and donors to ensure that surplus fresh foodstuffs like vegetables are donated and dispersed more efficiently.
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In short, the report - bolstered by the comments of the Archbishop - contains some worthy recommendations. Yes, the state should be doing more to support food banks. And yes, the proposal to roll out access to school meals during holidays for the poorest children is needed. But the food bank model itself needs something of an overhaul. Merely up-scaling will not address the deeper problems.