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Love and hunger in breadline Britain

We need a moral and spiritual revolution to replace the culture of shame with a politics of love and solidarity.

Credit: United States Department of Agriculture/Bob Nichols. CC0 Public Domain.

When I was at school I used to count down the days to the long summer holidays, but in breadline Britain huge numbers of parents approach the school break knowing that ‘holiday hunger’ awaits their children. In the sixth wealthiest country on earth, why do four million children go hungry during their holidays, and how can we respond more effectively to this scandal? We can’t rely on policies alone: two concepts drawn from the New Testament—agape (selfless love) and koinonia (fellowship or solidarity)—provide deeper guidance and inspiration for the struggles that lie ahead.

During the 2017-2018 school year approximately two million children in England received ‘Pupil Premium,’ a payment allocated to schools which provides young people with a free hot meal at lunch-time. Approximately 40 per cent of the children who attend breakfast clubs run by schools also receive free school meals.

Such provision appears to reflect a commitment to supporting children living in poverty, but in April 2018 the UK Government introduced means testing for the Pupil Premium and linked it to the receipt of Universal Credit. Families now have to earn less than £7,400 a year to qualify, a decision that—according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies—will mean that 100,000 children who are currently receiving free school meals will therefore miss out. Even before this decision, a third of British children living in poverty didn’t receive the Pupil Premium anyway.

Holiday hunger illustrates the deeper poverty that has reared its head in Britain since the 2010 General Election, leaving one million more children living in poverty after a fall of 800,000 during the previous decade, and giving rise to a dramatic rise in the use of foodbanks. Research by the Independent Food Aid Network identified 2,024 foodbanks and distribution centres in 2017, more than half of them run in collaboration with the Christian NGO the Trussell Trust which fed more than 1.3 million people in that year. The Trust’s foodbanks also gave food parcels to over 484,000 children, 13 per cent more than in 2016.

Foodbanks meet people’s immediate needs and their importance cannot be overstated, but they don’t tackle systemic social exclusion. Increasingly therefore, organizations like the Feeding Britain network (established in 2015) and local Trussell Trust affiliates provide debt counselling and benefits, housing and legal advice, and energy vouchers to counter fuel poverty to those who visit food banks in an effort to tackle these deeper issues. A related approach to tackling food poverty is the emergence of ‘junk food’ shops, cafés and ‘citizens’ supermarkets’ which recycle food that supermarkets have discarded. Such shops charge low prices or ask shoppers to offer a donation in exchange for the food they receive.

The growth of these initiatives exemplifies the commitment of faith-based and other voluntary sector groups to stand alongside people living in poverty. However, such initiatives have become increasingly stretched since the launch of the Conservative Government’s Universal Credit programme in 2017. Trailed as a streamlining of the benefits system that would enable people to move into paid work, Universal Credit has been widely accused of deepening the poverty Ministers claim it will alleviate.

In 2017 for example, former government adviser Dame Louise Casey urged Prime Minister Theresa May to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit, and in 2018 the columnist Polly Toynbee described it as a ‘catastrophe’ that has increased foodbank usage by 30 per cent. Potentially aware of the political damage done by this bleak picture, a July 2018 Department of Work and Pensions directive instructed Job Centre staff to stop keeping records of the number of people they refer to foodbanks. But what else can be done?

Holiday hunger highlights the fracture in the fabric of society that’s caused by the ‘age of austerity. It is an example of what the peace studies scholar Johann Galtung called ‘structural violence’ and the pioneer of Latin American liberation theology Gustavo Gutiérrez ‘systemic sin.’ Foodbanks, breakfast clubs, junk food shops and other small-scale initiatives will help to heal this fracture but they won’t be enough to turn the tide. Instead we need a moral and spiritual revolution that comprehensively rejects the culture of shame which blames people living in poverty for their own social exclusion and replaces it with a politics of love and solidarity.

Mentioning ‘love’ in political discourse can lead to accusations of naïve romanticism, but this misunderstands love’s potential as a source of liberative social change. When I see the person whose child has to go to school hungry as a reflection of myself it’s easier to move beyond a blame-game culture in which people living in poverty are seen as the helpless victims of amoral neo-liberal economics or as inadequate individuals. When we recognize that we are, in fact, our sister and brother’s keepers we see that the damage done by Universal Credit, rationing free school meals, the insecurity of zero hours contract work and low pay harms us all, not just those relying on the local foodbank.

This commitment to mutuality is a reflection of the New Testament term koinonia, which is better understood as a basis for liberative solidarity rather than apolitical fellowship. In his parable about the Day of Judgement in Matthew 25 Jesus illustrates the potential of this radical ethic: ‘When you feed the hungry, clothe the naked or welcome the stranger you feed, clothe and welcome me.’ The ‘age of austerity’ in the UK and the early years of the Trump Presidency in the USA have been characterized by social policies that seem intended to make life more comfortable for wealthy people at the expense of those who are living in poverty. These policies undermine the empowering solidarity exemplified by koinonia.

In the face of endemic injustice a commitment to friendship and mutuality is important, but on its own is unlikely to defeat post-crash poverty. A further, less comfortable, step is needed into the realm of self-sacrificial love or agape. As early as his 1962 ‘Levels of Love’ sermon, Dr Martin Luther King Jr argued that only unconditional and selfless love of this kind could challenge ingrained systemic injustice—what he called the ‘love that does justice.’ Such selfless love, which King suggested is ‘overflowing…and seeks nothing in return’, shaped the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and animates similar efforts today such as the Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis.

The embrace of self-sacrificial love is, in a Christian context, a response to a God who ‘becomes flesh and lives among us’ (John 1:14). Such unbounded love moves us beyond a symbolic solidarity with people living in poverty into the realm of costly struggle, just as it led Martin Luther King, towards the end of his life, to move beyond a compartmentalized advocacy for racial justice to issue a deeper and broader challenge to global economic injustice and US imperialism in Vietnam. King’s original Poor People’s Campaign (the precursor to Barber and Theoharis’ movement today) implicitly embodied the vision of God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ first articulated by Latin American liberation theologians like Gutiérrez.

Could a similar movement be built in Britain to attack the scandal of holiday hunger and its underlying ideology of austerity? We see the first-stirrings of such a movement in the holistic activism of networks like End Hunger, but these still need to be translated into concrete political action. The ending of Universal Credit, the further engagement of foodbanks in advocacy and campaigning, the provision of free school meals for all British children, the introduction of a genuine living wage and the guarantee of a ‘basic income’ for all citizens would represent a good start.

But without a deeper cultural shift—a commitment to loving each other in political as well as personal terms—the effects of such a movement will be transient, and that’s where faith and spirit can be vital.  Of course, faith-based organizations are not alone in their ability to mount this kind of challenge to poverty and austerity, and only a movement that brings together people of faith with their humanist counterparts will have any chance of success. However, armed with a political philosophy premised on selfless love, faith-based and other activists can build a movement that integrates pastoral responses to holiday hunger such as foodbanks with political action for structural change.

2018’s bout of holiday hunger may be drawing to a close as schools re-open their doors in September, but the injustice it highlights will not disappear. It is vital that practitioners, preachers and politicians hold government accountable for a decade of austerity in which the landscape of breadline Britain has become increasingly marked by rough-sleepers, foodbanks and children’s breakfast clubs. A commitment to a radical and liberative love which turns society the right-way up again can arm us for the struggles that lie ahead.

About the author

Chris Shannahan is an urban theologian and a Research Fellow in Faith and Peaceful Relations at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Prior to joining the Centre he worked in religious education, youth work and community organising. He is the author of A Theology of Community Organizing and other books.


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