FOOD, glorious food! Are you stocking up for Christmas, or searching out those vital ingredients for a favourite recipe? I love good local food, but food brings its problems, both in plenty and in scarcity.
The UK is a country known for being overweight. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions and is costing the NHS millions to treat the ill-health it causes. TV shows like Fat: The Fight of my Life and You Are What You Eat play to the nation’s obsession with food. Some, like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who campaigns for healthier school dinners and balanced portion sizes, are working hard to stem the tide.
It is a paradox that the hidden disease of hunger affects thousands in the UK. In this season when food and festivities are a central theme, we should take the time to consider those for whom Christmas highlights their plight against a backdrop of plenty.
Hunger is something we usually associate with developing countries, not comparatively rich western nations. We have grown accustomed to seeing regular appeals for aid to provide food for those afflicted by famine and war. Yet, for the first time since the Second World War, the Red Cross is getting involved nationwide in food aid across this country. Shoppers in supermarkets are now being asked to donate items, not for victims of famine overseas, but for hungry mouths here in the UK.
A question we must ask is why is this happening. There are many reasons. The economic downturn has hit many families hard and wages are not keeping pace with steep rises in the cost of living. Food, fuel, energy prices and housing costs continue to soar.
The coalition government’s welfare reform programme which has introduced the bedroom tax and a cap on benefits, has placed those on the margins of society under increased financial pressure. Poverty in Numbers, a report by the Church Urban Fund, says “all these problems are closely interlinked, trapping communities and individuals and communities in a web of poverty”.
The recent Real Life Reform study shows the impact of the changes to the welfare system on social housing tenants in cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool over the past 18 months. Of the households surveyed at the start of the study, 25 per cent already spent less than £20 a week on food and 63 per cent spent less than £40. Those interviewed reflected an increasing sense of frustration and hopelessness at the distressing situation they faced. “People I know go days without being able to eat”, said one. “I already can’t feed myself properly so it will just be worse. I get upset, angry and depressed.”
For me, knowing this is happening affects the way I pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” How can I be content when my neighbour has no food?
It is well documented that hunger can affect a child’s ability to concentrate, their behaviour and attendance rates. What this means is that right from the start, children who are already from disadvantaged backgrounds and growing up in poverty are facing additional barriers which could prevent them from creating a better future. Surely we cannot allow a generation of children to be trapped in poverty and have their prospects and potential curbed through no fault of their own?
Another clear indicator of the food crisis is the rise of food banks. The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity that runs over 300 food banks in the UK, 20 of them in Yorkshire. This year it has seen the numbers of people using food banks almost triple and between April and September, a staggering 346,992 people were fed.
The Trussell Trust’s vision is to have a food bank in every town and to create a nation where no-one has to go hungry. Its food banks receive donations and are staffed by people from all backgrounds and faiths in local communities. Front-line care professionals such as doctors and social workers refer people to the trust for emergency food aid. Many of its clients are not unemployed or homeless but are working families who are struggling to make ends meet.
Yet, alongside the valiant work of food banks in providing emergency food aid, we must seek long-term sustainable answers that will break the cycle of poverty. We need answers that will restore people’s dignity, and bring hope for a better life. If we truly want to tackle the issue of such widespread inequality in society then we must find solutions that do not just give people a hand-out, but give them a hand-up to lift them out of poverty.
It is important to respond collectively as a society to the needs of those around us. Recent initiatives such as the extension of free school meals to all infant aged children by the Government are welcome. But if every person decided to be part of the answer we could do so much more.
My faith in Jesus Christ teaches me the value of protecting the vulnerable, feeding the hungry and speaking out on behalf of those who have no voice. Yet having a concern and practically demonstrating true compassion is not simply a matter of faith. It is something we all should embrace as part of our humanity.
In 2010 I set up an online Christian charity, Acts435.org.uk. Did you know that many of those who have been helped by Acts435, when things have got better for them, have later donated to someone else’s need?
Mother Teresa dedicated her life to feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. She was surrounded by overwhelming need in the slums of Calcutta and once said, “If you can’t feed one hundred people, just feed one.”
So, as we approach Christmas, a time of plenty for many, let us take a moment to reflect on what we as individuals and families can do to reach out to those who are in need. Let’s give to our local food bank, and look out for our neighbours in need.
Who knows, one day we may need someone else’s help. Sometimes we think that we can’t do much, but simply giving what we have can be someone else’s miracle. If we do what we can, together we can make all the difference.
• Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York. This is the first in a series of four Advent essays which will culminate with his Christmas message on December 24.