The Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the Sunday Mail before an all-party parliamentary report on food poverty and hunger in the UK.
In one corner of a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo was a large marquee. Inside were children, all ill. They had been separated from family, friends, those who looked after them. Perhaps, mostly having disabilities, they had been abandoned in the panic of the militia attack that drove them from their homes. Now they were hungry. It was deeply shocking but, tragically, expected.
A few weeks later in England, I was talking to some people – a mum, dad and one child – in a food bank. They were ashamed to be there. The dad talked miserably. He said they had each been skipping a day’s meals once a week in order to have more for the child, but then they needed new tyres for the car so they could get to work at night, and just could not make ends meet. So they had to come to a food bank.
They were treated with respect, love even, by the volunteers from local churches. But they were hungry, and ashamed to be hungry.
I found their plight more shocking. It was less serious, but it was here. And they weren’t careless with what they had – they were just up against it. It shocked me that being up against it at the wrong time brought them to this stage.
There are many like them. But we can do something about it.
Two weeks ago, people in churches up and down the land listened to the passage in St Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus describes who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. When Christ returns, He will say: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.’
The good people are surprised, they don’t remember helping anyone so powerful, and think He has mixed them up with someone else. Jesus tells them: ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.’ Those who did not give food to the hungry or a drink to the thirsty find out God has taken their lack of kindness into account too.
Tomorrow, the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, led by Frank Field MP and the Bishop of Truro, the Right Reverend Tim Thornton, will publish its report and recommendations. The group has undertaken careful research with colleagues from across the political parties to find out what is happening behind the stories we hear of hunger and of people turning to food banks in increasing numbers.
It has delved deep into the issues raised and the findings paint a stark picture: hunger stalks large parts of our country.
For many this will have resulted from a sudden crisis or an event which has thrown life’s certainties into the air. Things pile up. One person the inquiry heard from had stopped to help someone who collapsed on the street. He missed his appointment and lost his benefits for a while.
The scenario here can often be mercilessly straightforward: when an additional expense arrives out of the blue or expected income is missed, bare cupboards and empty stomachs swiftly follow. Even being in work and earning money no longer appears to offer complete protection against these situations.
While children are excitedly counting down to Christmas, too many parents are fretting about the prospect of managing to put food on their child’s plate once schools pack up. They know that with the closure of the school gates for the festivities comes the loss of a free school meal each day for two weeks.
Food will also have been sacrificed by some of our fellow citizens suffering with chronic addictions or those who find themselves incapable of being able to cook or prepare any sort of meal. People in this situation need wide-ranging support to help get their lives back on track.
Churches are leading the response to the problems they see people facing in their local communities.
A large and growing number of churches have responded urgently by setting up food banks. Many also help to feed children who are hungry during the school holidays.
Equally as important, the gift of food, delivered with compassion and a listening ear, can begin a remarkable process. It helps to forge a connection with some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Once forged, this connection encourages people to open up so they can get to the bottom of what is causing their hunger in the first place – be it a crippling debt or something else.
The efforts of those hundreds of thousands of people who volunteer their time, effort and love in this way are monumental and worthy of immense praise. Quite simply, they are using food to transform lives.
The report makes practical recommendations that should be seized upon by politicians and charities alike. It seeks to bring people together from churches, food banks, the food industry and government to make a real difference.
We know that surpluses donated by the food industry are used by many of these bodies to stave off immediate hunger in their communities. Yet under the system we have now, it costs retailers to give their surplus food to the hungry. It often makes financial sense to send this surplus to landfill or for ‘anaerobic digestion’ – a process where food is broken down to create energy. Meanwhile, there are empty mouths and hungry stomachs to feed.
At least some of the food being sent to the incinerator can, and indeed should, be used as a force for good to help people out of the rut in which they find themselves.
The scale of waste in this country is astonishing. As a nation we discard about 15 million tons of food a year, at least four million thrown out by households. Of course much of this is inedible – but surely some of it could have been used. Supermarkets have taken great strides to deal with the issue of food waste, acknowledging they are a significant part of the problem.
Last year, for example, one chain discovered it had generated 28,500 tons of food waste in just six months at its shops and distribution sites.
To put this into perspective, 68 per cent of its bagged salads, 40 per cent of its apples and about half of its bakery products went to waste. By tackling this problem, it has now managed to donate 2.1 million meals’ worth of surplus food through FareShare, the organisation that redistributes usable surplus food to charities, in just 12 months.
We need to make it easier for food companies to give edible surplus food to charities and still encourage them to send inedible food for energy production. Churches, charities and other organisations are crying out for foodstuffs that are usable to be diverted away from the dump or the incinerator.
The big names in the food business know they have a moral obligation to the communities they work in.
We need to make sure the financial incentives in their industry don’t act against their moral instincts. It’s clear that the food business doesn’t want to look the other way in the face of hunger and need.
I have also met people in Government and Opposition who are straining every sinew to ensure our society is just and is directed by a strong moral compass. It’s clear to me that, as a society, we are seeking and striving for justice, fairness and responsibility. The challenge is to find the paths that let us follow that moral compass. We must apply the values of our Christian heritage.
I’m clear that is already happening in many areas – the Modern Slavery Bill is a shining example of law-making that turns British decency into practical action. It will help protect people who have suffered appallingly. I was proud to join the Pope and leaders from other faiths to sign a declaration in Rome last week, committing us to work to eradicate slavery by 2020. We need that kind of visionary action in all areas of our lives together.
This is a matter for prayer, because prayer shapes our priorities so that they become more like God’s priorities. Prayer leads to action, because Jesus Christ calls us to feed the hungry and give a drink to the thirsty.
We need to build a society that helps people take responsibility for their own lives and for their families. A society where those who are in need at one time can get their lives back on track and give to others in the future.
This cross-party report is practical, clear and effective. Its recommendations should be put into action quickly.
That would be a wonderful Christmas present for everyone who cares about the future of our country.