I think we can all agree that we’d like a society in which none go hungry. By which I mean that we’d like some system whereby those who are hungry – and by this I mean not just desiring a third Wagon Wheel in front of the telly – gain food to eat.
We’re all agreed so far, are we? Excellent. So, what’s wrong with this picture then?
I have just read a beautiful book about something truly obscene. Full of lovely pictures and occasional bits of text, it’s the kind you might read with your four-year-old. It shows a little girl and her mum as they visit a food bank.
It’s a No-Money Day is narrated by the daughter who sees how her mother worries over every penny, while shielding her from the painful stuff. “There’s no more cereal, so I have the last piece of toast. Luckily Mum isn’t hungry,” the girl says; and you know the biggest thing Mum will have for breakfast is her own little white lie. When they reach the food bank, the child tucks into biscuits and squash while her mother sags like a balloon from which the air has escaped.
Only just published, it is believed to be the UK’s first picture book about food banks. And, while the subject has been handled compassionately by the prize-winning author Kate Milner, I can’t help but see that landmark as a disgrace – for all of us. It is the watershed moment when Britain’s food banks go from newspaper headlines to a subject that teachers cover in classrooms; the moment at which mass destitution is no longer a badge of political failure but is instead accepted as part of British life.
What’s wrong is that evidence of a system which provides food to the hungry is being used to prove that we don’t have a system of providing food to the hungry. Which isn’t, when we think about it, quite how evidence is supposed to be used, is it?
As to why food banks rather than government? The assumption is being made here that before St Maggie took a hatchet to the welfare state then all did indeed eat well. Which is an insane misreading of history of course as anyone with the years to have been there will tell you. The British state has always been pretty shit at distributing that free money. Benefits always have turned up in the wrong amounts, late, skimped. Food banks are a new technology – they didn’t exist in Britain before about 2004 or so – which solves that problem of that state bureaucracy being pretty shit.
We should celebrate that the little platoons get out there and solve hunger. Instead we get this whining that it’s being done and done well.
And now think on the demand that Chakrabortty is making. He agrees that this vast, centralised, bureaucracy is pretty shit at making sure there’s cereal in the cupboards. Therefore he insists that the vast, centralised, bureaucracy should take the place of the little platoons in getting cereal into the cupboards. How’s that for logic, eh?
We do indeed want to solve the problem, we’ve a system which does so. Why is everyone complaining about the fact that we’re solving the problem?