“Have you ever been to a food bank?”
I nodded that I had.
“What did you think?”
Now that was a question. I thought for a moment and came up with something seriously lacking in profundity. “Lots of things, really.”
This was back in 2015 when I had started work for the British Red Cross in Bath and North East Somerset (BANES). I was visiting isolated and lonely people, trying to increase their independence, putting them in touch with other services that might make their lives better and sometimes taking them to nice places they might not otherwise visit. This man was young, barely in his thirties. He couldn’t walk very well because of the ravages that excessive heroin usage had done to his body. He lived in a small flat in BANES and spent winters choosing between eating and heating.
I arrived one day and he had absolutely nothing in the cupboard or the fridge. He was literally starving when I got there at his freezing abode. We had already arranged to visit the local food bank, one of the food banks I had visited before.
“I hate using the food bank, ” he said, as I parked the car. “It’s humiliating and embarrassing, especially if I bump into someone I know.” Inevitably, the second we walked through the door we bumped into someone he knew. Both of them smiled awkwardly. “I could have done without that. But I expect he could have, too.”
What were the “lots of things” I’d thought about before. First, the likes. I greatly admired the Trussell Trust volunteers who were being assisted by people from the Salvation Army and by people who just wanted to help. And of course people who have generously donated food to stop people going hungry. The dislikes? Just about everything else. If I was uncomfortable, imagine how everyone in need was feeling? Ordinary people who had fallen on hard times who had nothing to eat. Nothing to eat in the 21st century.
My friend did not have a great deal of choice in what he was given and made no complaint about that. He got a box of packets and tins which, if he was careful, would last a week or maybe longer. He would use every single last thing. Friends of his would not always do the same. “They’ll flog theirs if they can get a fix or some weed.” Jesus: they will? And then what will they do? “They’ll feel better for a short time, then go hungry again.”
I got to know BANES quite well in a very short space of time. Much of the area was wealthy and affluent but large parts of it, far from it. Until 2010, it had been a Labour seat but since then the MP was Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Old Etonian and Oxford university student who happens to be worth some £100 million, with much of his income coming from tax havens in the Cayman Islands and Singapore. Parts of Radstock and Midsomer Norton were not exactly the rambling shires. I frequently encountered people in poverty and/or dependent upon heavy drug use. And the food bank was very busy when I was there.
Rees-Mogg said that the voluntary support give to food banks was “rather uplifting” and “shows what a compassionate country we are” which, I fear, showed him to hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the often grim lives of poor people. I disagreed with him in principle, too. It was certainly hugely admirable that people donated items to the food bank but I saw things in a different light. I am guessing that Rees-Mogg, being a hard right Tory, believes Margaret Thatcher’s adage that “there is no such thing as society” whereas I very firmly think there is such a thing. Rees-Mogg says food banks show show our compassion but I measure compassion by our societal response and, as things stand, our society has decided that the state has no responsibility in ensuring people, including children, can eat. I would use the same argument for former armed services personnel having to rely on charity instead of being cared for by those they have defended.
Doubtless, as local MP Rees-Mogg has spent time away from counting his millions and visited his local food banks, but I somehow doubt it. If he had, and moreover if he had the slightest conscience, he would have used his power and influence to fight inequality and poverty. He can’t have, though. Can he? You’d need a heart of stone to just leave people to rot.
Seeing people apply for food from a food bank was among the most upsetting things I ever saw. Everyone I saw was not, somehow, part of the deserving poor, whoever they are. They came from a wide variety of places that had been bypassed by the state. I was shocked, remain shocked, that when the likes of Rees-Mogg have hundreds of millions there are many people in his local area who have nothing.