There won’t be many people reading this who haven’t skipped school, been too hungover for a lecture or thrown a sickie from work and found yourself transfixed by a bleary eyed, anxious, track suit wearing youngster being bollocked in front of a live audience by a man in a suit. He’s there to help see? He’s promised that if you come on his TV show that he can find out who your baby’s Dad is. Or whether your junkie girlfriend has really been shagging your best pal whilst you’re standing in the dole queue. He’s there to help you, really.
Day after day, thousands of television screens will turn on across the country as people sit back to gorge on the latest instalment of poverty porn. The poor are entertainment. Newspapers are quick to judge and deride the benefit-fraud package holidays and NHS DD boob jobs. In cities, millions walk to work every day, stopping off for their daily £3 soya milk latte, conveniently averting their gaze while others are left sleeping on the streets, begging. They are the poor. They are not us.
We live in a state that mystifies and vilifies the poor whilst still claiming to help them. We relegate them to the sidelines of our society, happy to ignore the surrounding poverty providing we still get Jeremy Kyle, Benefits Street, and more “outrage” courtesy of White Dee and The Daily Mail. These have become the poverty-tinted eyes that we view our society with. Whilst a percentage of the population fight to make real, long lasting change and deliver social justice across the country, there are many that are unaware of the true legacy of the way we view people who are struggling. As a society we already accept the distorted view of those living in full or in part on benefits that we are presented in the media, we accept them as entertainment. Poverty in the UK has to all extents and purposes become normal.
Last week, Better Together Aberdeenshire and conservative History teacher Stewart Whyte created a minor storm (days on and I’m still seeing it pop up on Twitter) by claiming that “Food banks are not a sign of the UK’s failure but of Scotland becoming a normal European country, of religious faith and human compassion.” Not only was this a completely ridiculous stupid thing to say in the first place, but by thinking this way it leaves serious repercussions in the way that we treat food banks as a society. By treating food banks and charity institutions as a cultural norm, we begin to allow poverty to become a cultural norm.
At the start of this year I went to a food bank for the first time. Not for its services, but to try and uncover what the day to day life there was actually like and whether or not these distorted representations in the media were as close to the truth as we are led to believe. It’s hard to know what to expect when you walk through the doors for the first time. It wasn’t a sad looking place. It was a warehouse. A working warehouse. There were no Saatchi-esque ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ queues out the door. There were just people needing help. There were people willing to help.
No-one that walks into the food bank will be refused food. A member of the public can walk in, and through filling out a form can receive a bag with three days worth of food, but not three days worth of luxury eating. Each food parcel contains a small amount of pasta, rice, cereal, some tea bags, sugar, soup, and when possible milk and sauces. It’s enough to get by on if you have to, but it’s nowhere near a balanced or healthy diet. People can top up these parcels with fresh produce, but only when they have fresh produce to give. The majority of stock comes from donations or through a scheme called Fareshare, an initiative that sources unwanted food in bulk from supermarkets in an effort to reduce surplus wastage. One main problem that these food banks face is the type of food people donate. Lying untouched on the shelves were bags of flour, rolls of marzipan for baking, chocolate sprinkles. It’s nobody’s fault. People just don’t know what to donate.
Over my four months photographing and helping out where I could, I heard plenty of stories. Stories that were heartwarming and stories that were horribly crushing. It never occurred to me that people wouldn’t even have the basics needed to cook a warm meal. Some emergency accommodation will just have a kettle for the occupants. One visitor to the food bank had only eaten eggs, boiled in a kettle, for days before his visit. I saw a child’s eyes light up as he was given a small bar of chocolate, seemingly the first he’d lay his eyes on in months. I spoke to a woman who had no choice but to go because her cancer treatment left her in a permanent state of coldness, all her money being used trying to keep her warm. I saw the ‘bedroom tax’ being added as a reason for seeking help. The thing that struck me most was that one day it could be me.
You probably have an idea in your mind about the kind of people that visit these places. That idea will most likely be wrong. Chances are you know someone who needs help, who has sought help, or doesn’t even know they are eligible for help. In a submission to the Scottish Parliament Welfare committee, the Trussell Trust reported that less than 5% of the people that use their food banks are homeless, the majority are people from working families struggling to make ends meet. They also reported between 2011 and 2013 that Scotland experienced a faster growth of food banks opening with them than “any other region in the United Kingdom”. 17,348 of the people receiving assistance from them were children.
The comments from Better Together Aberdeenshire and Stewart Whyte were completely ridiculous. Claiming that using food banks as a political point is insulting shows a complete disregard for the people that need to use them. Right now, food banks are an unfortunate necessity. The Top Men at Westminster’s cuts aren’t the first, or the last, crusade against the poor. It won’t be any time soon that the staff and volunteers stop handing out emergency food parcels, but we are fortunate enough now to be in a position to take the welfare of our people into our own hands and create a welfare
system to be proud of, not one that is being heartlessly cut and leaving those struggling hung out to dry. Complacency breeds normality. Normality breeds acceptance.
If we don’t change our perception of the poor then we risk relegating them to the sidelines of society forever. Turn off your TVs, stop reading the Daily fucking Mail. The Scottish Parliament Welfare Committee page can be found here and contains a wealth of information and testimonies from charities and councils where you can find out in a lot more detail than I’ve offered here the causes and effects of food banks. You can help. You can donate food, you can volunteer, you can protest the welfare cuts, you can vote Yes to ensure that the welfare of people in Scotland is in our hands. You can guarantee that food banks don’t become the new normal.
With thanks to Mairi McFadyen and Josephine Sillars
Images taken from Alex’s documentary project ‘4 Poynernook Road’