by Josh Sutton.
The food bank scene in Ken Loach’s latest film, “I Daniel Blake,” frequently reduces audiences to tears. In it, the protagonist, a young single mum, having gone without food for many days in order to feed her two young children, rips open a can of baked beans and begins to shovel them into her mouth with her fingers. The film’s director maintains that that scene is based in reality. It actually happened. Over a million people in the UK today are dependent on food banks and food charity to help them get by on a daily basis.
The struggle to put food on the table is one that affects people the world over. The UK has a long history of food riots dating back to the fifteenth century and beyond. More recently, and on the international stage, food riots lay at the heart of the so-called ‘Arab spring’. Dictators and authoritarian leaders the world throughout will nearly always seek to preserve the longevity of their rule by ensuring a constant supply of affordable bread as a basic supplement to the diet.
While researching and writing my most recent book “Food Worth Fighting For – from food riots to food banks” (Prospect Books: 2016), a number of recurring themes began to emerge, which suggest that the future of food distribution lies behind us. One such observation is that in medieval England, poor relief, which included provision of food, was largely an ecclesiastical endeavor. With the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII however, that duty was taken up in part by the state in the form of the ‘Parish Chest’, which was administered by local magistrates and upstanding members of the community. In Britain today the plight of the hungry is taken up by the church once more. As far back as May 2013, the Church Action on Poverty Group, together with OXFAM, published a report titled ‘Walking the Bread Line – the scandal of food poverty in 21st century Britain’. It is of note that the majority of food banks in Britain are provided by the Trussell Trust, a faith-based organization. It appears that we have indeed gone back to the future, in that poor relief in Britain is once again in the hands of the church. This report arguably paved the way for many more to follow, including a token effort from the British government, commissioned by the Department Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Little over a decade into the twenty first century and food poverty is back on the map, like some sort of historical spectre that never really went away.
Another historical practice playing a part in our food future is that of gleaning. Arguably dating back to biblical times, farmers and landowners traditionally allowed the poor to clear up after the harvest, gathering left over crops. Gleaning in the UK all but ceased during the late 1950s as the efficiency of new harvesting machinery improved and rendered the practice obsolete. Gleaning now plays a key role in provision of food charity in the UK, with hundreds of volunteers gathering un-harvested crops for distribution to food banks and feeding centres nationwide. The ugly truth is that nowadays crops are left to rot in fields, not through inefficiencies of harvesting machinery, but rather through the fickle nature of the market. Supermarket buyers refuse to buy up fruit and vegetables that fail the aesthetic test. An ugly system, rejecting ugly veg.
Historically, the ultimate manifestation of malcontent with food distribution took the form of food riots. Bread or Blood was a common cry among the poor and those that would gather in market squares and town centres. But the food riots of the past were far from the chaotic violent connotations of rioting today. In the majority of cases a food riot was a ‘negotiation’ between vendor (who more often or not grew, raised or made the food for sale) and the crowd who had gathered in the market place. ‘Customers’ had the opportunity to set the price of provision at a fair and affordable limit.
Again elements of this practice are echoed today through the proliferation of Pay As You Feel (PAYF) cafes, which are springing up in towns and cities across the world. In the majority of cases, unsold or near ‘best before date’ food and ingredients are donated free of charge from a range of sources including (increasingly) supermarkets and restaurant chains. The PAYF cafes then use this free food, providing meals for their ‘customers’ who pay what they feel for their meals. Where this comparison clearly differs from past practices is the fact that in the case of the supermarkets and restaurant chains donating food to PAYF cafes, profits have already been banked. Indeed by donating waste or surplus food to charity, businesses are making huge savings on land fill bills.
It is this emerging model of food charity, with its roots in the past, that may, perhaps, lead to a change in the highly wasteful supermarket led food system we have today. It could well be that lightening strike moment as the bolt hits the clock tower and sends us all back to the future. The likelihood of food riots returning to our towns and cities may well be low, but as the number of PAYF cafes multiplies, and people begin to realize that they can eat well and pay as they feel, then this realization may begin to register in a downfall of takings at the supermarket tills. And that will undoubtedly lead to change.
Josh Sutton’s most recent book is “Food Worth Fighting For.”
The Guardian called it an “original and passionately argued book. . ., warning that today’s poverty levels mean we may see food riots again.”