Going beyond foodbanks – the pioneering work of The Matthew Tree Project

The Matthew Tree ProjectLast month Panorama ran a programme on food poverty featuring a number of Christian charities and organisations in Bristol working to meet the needs of those struggling to cope. The work of one group stood out for me in particular. The Matthew Tree Project was described as a foodbank, but it is far more than that. I believe it models a visionary approach to transforming the lives of individuals and communities that goes beyond meeting the immediate needs caused by lack of food. I’ve asked the project’s founder and Director, Mark Goodway to explain more about the project and his work. Mark tweets at @TMTPcharity.

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The challenges facing our society in 2014, many believe, are like nothing experienced before. These are certainly the most challenging times in living memory and the church has a role to play. The four pillars on which our society stands are; (1) local and national government; (2) the corporate sector; (3) the third sector of statutory and voluntary organisations and (4) the faith/church community; and each has a significant role to play. However, the church has a unique opportunity to stand up and take the lead in demonstrating God’s Kingdom on earth at this time of great change and challenge. God has a previous track record in times of crisis such as this. It won’t be the first time He has intervened to save mankind from disaster. Think Joseph and the seven years of plenty before the seven years of famine.

Poverty is real and is being felt by thousands of adults and children which is adversely effecting their life chances. And this is not just in Africa, Asia and South America but in 2014 Britain and many of the other Western developed ‘rich’ countries. Inequality is more stark now than it has ever been leading to huge social and health problems and challenges. Does God care about this and the human suffering it causes. Of course He does. For anyone to think otherwise is not to know God at all. God has chosen us to be His hands and feet to address the need here on earth.

And He has provided us with all the resources we need to respond to this challenge. He has even given us a step-by-step guide in Acts chapter 4 with the example of the actions of the early church. They called upon and proclaimed the name of the Lord, sold all their possessions and shared with all. No one was in need. We live in a highly materialistic and consumer driven society that is damaging to us and those around us. In many respects we work ourselves into an early grave to buy things we do not need and often cannot afford. God is clear in His instruction to us. Not to concern ourselves with earthly things but with heavenly things instead – the things that matter to God: People. To love our neighbour as we love ourselves and to care for them – whatever their need may be. Our task is to accept everyone we meet as they are, value them for who they are, love them and care for them regardless. No exception and no qualification needed. This is what God did for us and this is what we do for those God brings into our lives.

Oxfam recently reported (March 2014) that the 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world’s population and they called on those gathered at the recent WEF (World Economic Forum) to pledge to: support progressive taxation and not dodge their own taxes; refrain from using their wealth to seek political favours that undermine the democratic will of their fellow citizens; make public all investments in companies and trusts for which they are the ultimate beneficial owners; challenge governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection; demand a living wage in all companies they own or control; and challenge other members of the economic elite to join them in these pledges.

This is important. Welfare has been heavily in the news for the last two years, with the unfair government welfare reforms, and the reasons why different people come to rely on it are incredibly complex. The recent DEFRA report on food aid found that the biggest issues facing many accessing food aid are low-income, increasing living costs (including food prices) and personal debt. When the Matthew Tree Project was featured on the BBC1’s recent Panorama programme on food poverty staff were shown asking those receiving food to bring their bank statements. This is because they understand that many visiting them need more than help with their food. It’s only when some of the underlying causes of poverty can begin to be addressed that significant progress can be made.

The Matthew Tree Project (TMTP), is very much a (very real) practical expression of the ethos and holistic nature of God in 2014. TMTP enjoys the (active and practical) support of Bristol City Council (right up to the mayor himself); the Food Policy Council; Bristol’s Food Network; Bristol Green Capital; the London Assembly; the Tudor Trust; the ward councillors in the wards in which they work (the most deprived in the city); Bristol’s Public Health department; BITC (Business in the Community network); and the local and national media (i.e. BBC Panorama in March’14; Channel 4 Dispatches in March’14; BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth last week; BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions May 2, 2014; BBC Inside Out West 2011 & 2012; plus numerous local radio stations and shows over the past 24 months).

Along with being the founder of TMTP, I am also a member of Bristol’s Fairness Commission (the final report is due to be released April 2014); Bristol’s Joint Planning Board for Welfare Reform and Advice Agencies and am also an advisor to the APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group of MP’s) in Westminster for Hunger and Food Poverty.

There is a tremendous advantage in being in this privileged position to be able to connect all the dots across all these bodies/groups as the issues being tackled are complex and a matrix of multiple elements all of which affect each other in different ways. This is why TMTP model is so successful and making such progress on the food poverty, food security, economic (skills and jobs), and environmental impact agenda. It is absolutely not a food bank but instead a transforming, pioneering and unique initiative that is hitting all the right notes and most importantly is a sustainable model that works in the most deprived communities and for the most vulnerable and those on the lowest incomes, as well as for everyone else.

TMTP work maximises local food growing and healthy food production (volume and effectiveness); actively promotes the development of multiple skills and training in the local food sector; actively promotes healthier and happier lifestyles, actively reduces food waste and maximises resources; actively reduces transportation and packaging costs and mechanical interventions (carbon emissions); actively engages with all levels of the local community including council, schools, colleges, businesses, churches, other local organisations and residents and significantly improves community cohesion and active (outdoor) lifestyles whilst at the same time promoting the value and importance of ecology and the need to view the environment around us in a completely different and very positive way – to help us solve our multiple challenges of social, health and economic problems.

In addition to the above TMTP work also includes cook-from-scratch cookery courses, malnutrition and obesity work, money & budgeting support, creating relationship and the building up of trust, self-confidence and self-esteem (a vital component in any work with anyone).

Make no mistake, the situation we face is serious on many levels. A major UN report published in March warns that the impact of global warming is likely to be “severe, pervasive and irreversible”.

Scientists and officials meeting in Japan say the document is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impacts of climate change on the world. Some impacts of climate change include a higher risk of flooding and changes to crop yields and water availability. Humans may be able to adapt to some of these changes, but only within limits.

God has shown he is ready to do what it takes to guide us through this.

The questions is…are we?

The Matthew Tree Project was established in 2010 and is an independent Christian faith-based charity underpinned by Matthew 25 vs 31-46, Mark 12 vs 28-31, and James 2 vs 14-17.



Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Christian organisations, Poverty

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1 reply

  1. It will be interesting to see what happens to the TMTP. At present its income and expenditure is small (around £145K – to put this in perspective the cost of running a moderate residential home for say 30 residents with dementia over 12 months would be around £1.2 million; the NSPCC spends around £122 million a year on its services and local governments’ child welfare services (excluding education) cost around £6.7 billion…).

    My own PhD thesis and later academic work looks at faith-based welfare (FBOs) and I suggest that what happens to many FBOs is that they start small, often under the direction of charismatic leader (Lord Shaftsbury, William Booth, John Groom, Dr Barnardo etc.) yet they very quickly become bureaucratic and institutional organisations. As this process continues the distance between believer/faith community and the actual work of the organisation increases. If today you were to visit a Salvation Army Hostel or a Livability residential home (Livability being the merger of the Shaftsbury Society and John Groom’s) you’d probably be shocked at how different the work of the organisation is when compared to the putative beliefs of believers and wider society (or the rosy pictures on the websites) have concerning faith-based welfare. The care and support is good – but no different to what might be found in other organisations (and to be frank there is no evidence that ‘faith-based’ is better – there are good and bad in all sectors). Anyone can do the hands on work (believers tend to sit on the board of trustees or in senior management) and it is largely paid for by the taxpayer in some shape or form (see: http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/CharityWithPartB.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=1116530&SubsidiaryNumber=0 and http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/CharityWithPartB.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=215174&SubsidiaryNumber=0 – the tag ‘charitable activities’ usually denotes income earned via contract or charging – in the main it is local and central government that picks up the tab – note how small is the donated proportion of income). What is ‘faith-based’ about much large scale faith based welfare in the UK (and elsewhere) is difficult to discern for without the taxpayer to pay the bills and non-believers doing the actual hands on work, many ‘faith-based’ projects would whither or be substantially smaller scale than they are today.

    What I found interesting in my research was the work of small scale faith-based projects, run by local churches (tho’ these are few and far between) – to my mind these are ‘faith-based’ – they are reliant on volunteers and donation income: they are a tangible expression of the witness of the church. And they can often provide something lacking in state provision – though some run the risk of fostering dependency or favouring those who show an interest in God. Yet such projects tend to be short lived. They usually fail within a generation because it is hard to maintain a voluntary base – and once a paid staff team is employed it very quickly becomes charity by proxy.

    So like you, I will watch TMTP with interest (tho’ whether it can be said to be faith-based, is a matter of debate… It makes no mention of faith affillation in its annual report). Personally I think the way forward is just to get on with it and not try and hold something up as a template that arose in particular circumstances and because (as a rule) because of certain individuals. Once something becomes institutionalised and bureaucratised it becomes something else (an institution – which often becomes vicarious charity which people support via financial transaction, but not by (for the vast majority) getting their hands dirty).

    As for welfare reform – a good thing me thinks (and I write as someone who has worked as a social worker for 30 years, qualified and unqualified). I would like to see the end of cash benefits for all long term benefit claimants (except for the severely disabled and over 65s). I think we should have a sliding scale – those with five years NI contributions getting generous job seeking allowance – but one that drops to half after six months and then becomes a vouchers systems after a year. Of course the benefits’ bill is largely made up of pensioners, your jobless, teen single mother accounts for a tiny part of the benefits’ bill. At present we are paying for many benefits with money we haven’t got – and haven’t really ever had (we’ve been borrowing money to pay for the welfare state since its inception). Something has to happen – and reform has to come in some shape or form. Moreover we have to move away from a sense of entitlement to a sense of reciprocation and personal responsibility. TMTP seems a way of doing that – but a more punitive welfare system would also help!

    As for ‘God has shown he is ready to do what it takes to guide us through this….’ I do have to smile at these platitudes. The only real thing that has helped humanity overcome disease, famine, natural disaster is not God, but science and political stability. God was quite willing to let a 3rd of Europe’s population die horrible deaths in the mid 14th century. 70 million came to grisly ends in WWII. The list of what God was content for humanity to suffer is endless, so I wouldn’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for God to guide you! Of course it could be argued that God has given us science and medicine and democracy etc. – but that does rather beg the question why we, in the last century, have had it comparatively easy. Was God happy for countless millions to die – often painful, nasty deaths in the centuries before antibiotics, surgery, analgesia, the flush toilet? It would seem so…

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