Yesterday’s Autumn Statement by George Osborne confirmed a few things we should all know anyway. The country’s economy is still in a perilous state and the end of the dark tunnel is not getting any closer and probably won’t be any time soon. It also emphasised that for those who rely financially on state welfare, the support they receive will continue to be squeezed hard. I’m not looking at this point to argue as to whether this is fair and acceptable, but rather acknowledge that the numbers of people struggling to get by on even the basics is increasing.
I was reminded of this again at the weekend when I saw Tesco running its Help Feed People in Need campaign in its stores in conjunction with the charities FareShare and the Trussell Trust. This is the first time Tesco have worked nationally with organisations in this way to donate food for those families and individuals in crisis suffering from food poverty. FareShare have a long history of working with food producers and supermarkets such as M&S and in particular, Sainsbury’s distributing surplus food to organisations working with disadvantaged people. It’s great to see Tesco now working with them too and they are also the first supermarket to partner with the Trussell Trust so good on them and hopefully it will inspire the other big chains to do the same.
According to research on Tesco’s website, around 10% of people have suffered from some form of food poverty in the last 12 months, with 7% of people skipping meals and 8% relying on friends or family to provide food. This is a rapidly growing problem. The Trussell Trust are the UK’s largest provider of food banks by some way, giving food to those desperately in need. Trying to establish just how many they operate is surprisingly difficult as the numbers appear to be going up weekly. An excellent Guardian article on the numbers of people being helped by foodbanks in different regions in October cited 172 Trussell Trust foodbanks in operation. this compares to Chris Bryant MP’s Independent article on them last week which put the number at 288. I suspect the October article’s figures were out of date, but even so the expansion has been considerable. The Trussell Trust’s own figures show that in the last six months over 100,000 people have been fed through their foodbanks, compared to 128,697 people in total during the 2011-12 financial year.
The story of the Trussell Trust is a remarkable one. It partners with churches and communities to open new foodbanks nationwide and their goal is for every town to have one. The foodbanks have ‘clients’ referred to them from professional agencies such as the police and social workers. The reasons people need their help are varied, but the most common is because of delays or a change in circumstances to their benefit claims.
The Trussell Trust began back in 1997 when Paddy and Carol Henderson were working in Bulgaria seeking to improve conditions for the 60+ street children sleeping at the Central Railway Station. Three years later whilst fundraising in Salisbury, Paddy received a call from a desperate mother in Salisbury saying “my children are going to bed hungry tonight – what are you going to do about it?” Following that, Paddy started to investigate local levels of deprivation and ‘hidden hunger’ in the UK. The shocking results showed that significant numbers of local people faced short term hunger as a result of a sudden crisis. As a result of this, Paddy started a foodbank in his garden shed in Salisbury, providing three days of emergency food to local people in crisis. In 2004 the UK foodbank network was launched teaching churches and communities nationwide how to start their own foodbanks.
If you visit the Trust’s website you’ll be left in no doubt that it is a Christian organisation. Going to the Mission and Values page, you’ll read this:
We are a Christian organisation motivated by Jesus’ teaching on poverty and injustice. We operate according to Christian principles of compassion, honesty, integrity, openness, kindness and care of all people, regardless of backgrounds or beliefs. We believe in turning faith into practical action, living out God’s love for the poor…
‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:35-36′
There’s something very simple and yet very powerful about what the Trussell Trust is doing. They’ve identified a clear need amongst a group in society who are struggling and they’ve responded in an effective and practical way. Their motivation comes through the compassion of the Christian faith and has no political underpinnings. They are willing to help anyone in need irrespective of their background or beliefs. It’s such a vivid example of the Bible’s teachings on serving the poor becoming a reality. Even though they have been receiving plenty of positive press coverage over the last year and support from MPs from all parties, they are not given any government funding. I would suspect that this has actually benefitted them as they have not been tied down by state interference. Those running the foodbanks get on with doing what they do holding firm to the beliefs that drive them and as they have gone about their business others have caught the vision to the point where a supermarket such as Tesco wants to work with them.
It is a worrying state of affairs that the demand for foodbanks is so high. There are always going to be those in society who have moments of crisis no matter how good the welfare state is, but as the state shrinks it appears that charities and organisations such as the Trussell Trust will have to increasingly step in to plug the gaps. In the past churches and Christian organisations did much of this work and once again Christians are leading the way in some areas.
When the Gospel is put into action we all benefit. You can’t ignore this fact. The more government and councils acknowledge the work of Christian organisations and allow them to get on and serve their communities without restricting them or placing demands that compromise their work, the more effective they will be. Those involved with the Trussell Trust are doing wonderful work blessing the lives of many vulnerable people. Whatever our political or religious beliefs may be, they deserve our full support.