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With the Grain

Beveridge’s Message of Voluntary Action and Mutual Help is as timely now as in the 1940s, says Andrew Forsey in Politeia’s Christmas Message

As 2022 gives way to 2023, so the 80th  anniversary of Beveridge’s Social Insurance blueprint gives way to a different milestone, that of the 75th anniversary of  Beveridge’s later report, Voluntary Action. In it Beveridge issued a rallying cry for the country to build on the foundations of full employment and a welfare state in pursuit of a truly free society. In particular, he called for the nurturing in each community of institutions through which people could help one another to navigate and manage the complexities of modern life without any unnecessary suffering. Both anniversaries should prompt an opportunity to review and then reshape our country’s response to poverty and destitution.  

When, a decade ago, I began working with Frank Field, who served as Birkenhead’s Member of Parliament for forty years from 1979-2019, he received a paper from the food bank in Birkenhead. It  had not been in existence for long and carried news of a startling recent development: there were now people in the town going hungry, with no money for food, and becoming dependent on emergency food parcels which could only be given out upon proof of destitution.  

One of my first tasks, on the back of this chilling news, was to help Frank set up an all-party group of MPs and Peers to investigate this new phenomenon in Britain and then create a charitable vehicle for implementing the group’s report.

Feeding Britain 
emerged as that charitable vehicle and has since begun demonstrating effective ways of not merely relieving or responding to destitution, but preventing people falling into its clutches in the first place. Moreover, we have attempted to do so in a way that goes with the grain of what people deem to be fair and dignified – with an approach built on mutual self-help and reciprocity.

We currently support a network of 226 affordable food clubs – encompassing pantries, larders, and social supermarkets – across the country. These settings make a wide range of food and other essentials more affordable and accessible to their 40,000 member households, helping people stretch their budgets further while simultaneously shortening the queues outside food banks. Members pay a financial contribution (or membership fee) which allows them the freedom to choose from the fresh, chilled, frozen, and long-life goods on display which enables us to substitute dignity and pride for stigma and shame, as well as to place each setting on a sustainable footing so that people know they can always rely on this service when money is tight. An average contribution of between £5 and £10 enables a typical member to take home goods valued at between £15 and £20.

Crucially, it is the broader package of support within each setting – including expert advice on debt and budgeting, opportunities to cook and eat together, Credit Union savings accounts, and activities for families during school holidays – which gives the affordable food club a role in strengthening people’s ability to cope, reducing levels of anxiety and loneliness, and enhancing people’s sense of freedom.

In a similar vein, a majority of members save enough money from this service to enable them to continue buying some or most of their weekly shopping from their regular supermarket, and to keep on top of rent and utilities – all the while not having to join the queue for a food bank.

The following reports from a low-paid worker and a pensioner in London’s East End speak to the experience of a growing number of households, who are signing up with their local affordable food club:  

‘The savings I make here on food I put towards my gas, that way I can take the chill off in the morning before my son goes to school. I think it’s a wonderful idea’;  

‘The cost of living and energy bills have gone so high. I like the idea of the food club which has given some dignity. I like that I’m paying something as a contribution and getting the healthy, daily food I need’.

Following a decade which has seen an explosion in the numbers of food banks being asked to dole out more and more emergency food parcels to people who are suffering with hunger, there is of course a need to address those powerful underlying drivers of need in the labour market and welfare state. But the ongoing role and functions of the voluntary sector itself need to be addressed as well if our country’s approach to the elimination of that suffering is to be both comprehensive and effective.

Are we content merely to continue relieving destitution among those joining the lengthening queues for overstretched food banks? Or can we move onto a more preventative footing which ensures everyone in our country can access and afford the food they need while keeping their heads above water?

Just as Beveridge demonstrated the art of the possible for the voluntary sector 75 years ago, so will Feeding Britain continue championing a role for local institutions in helping people with low or modest incomes cope in this era of high inflation, rather than allow them to succumb to the destitution which brings the need for food banks into play.    

Should you wish to support this work, you can donate to Feeding Britain at https://feedingbritain.org/donate/

Andrew Forsey

Andrew Forsey is the Director of Feeding Britain, a charity that was established in 2015 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger. He is the co-author with Frank Field of Not for Patching: A Strategic Welfare Review (2018) and Fixing Broken Britain? (2016), having also led his parliamentary office between 2013 and 2019. They are co-authors for Politeia of Revisiting Beveridge: A Benefits and Welfare System for the 21st Century (2020).

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