Comment | Serve the rich, eat the poor

Faced with the shameful statistics that 13 million people in the UK are currently living below the poverty line and supermarkets waste 15 million tonnes of food each year, surely outrage and immediate action are the only possible responses? Seemingly not. Instead the powerful millionaires in Government and fat cats in the media are charging blindly about with their scrounger rhetoric, shaming the poor and charging at the hungry with the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Rather than confront the problem of British poverty, the Government has refused a £22 million subsidy for foodbanks from the EU, callously sweeping this crisis under the carpet.

The Trussell Trust released new figures last week that revealed almost 350,000 people in the UK are depending on food banks to feed their families. Meanwhile, the story of three men arrested and charged for taking disposed food from an Iceland skip resurfaced. They are not unconnected; with a well documented cost of living crisis gripping the nation, thousands of people are having to survive on free food.

Food banks and skipping are not completely analogous. Many people who do throw their food in a skip do it on the principle that edible food consigned to landfillsis simply a waste. However the three men guilty of taking some tomatoes, Mr Kipling cakes, and cheese from an Iceland bin last October did so because they couldn’t afford food. Thankfully the charges have been dropped due to public pressure, but it’s worrying that the CPS pursued the case for so long. In a savvy PR move even Iceland bosses questioned the point of the charges. It’s just a shame they threw away edible food in the first place.

The argument supermarkets give is that they can’t legally sell food which has gone beyond its sell by date, but that doesn’t mean they can’t follow in the footsteps of companies such as Pret A Manger, and Leeds University Union, who give away unsold food to the homeless or the hungry. It’s not just supermarkets which waste food either; the uncomfortable truth is that while thousands of families struggle to eat each week, the UK produces seven million tons of household food and drink waste every year.

The Government’s response to the issues of food waste and foodbank dependency has been disappointing, but not surprising. Refusing the EU subsidy with the excuse that the money will be funnelled into work programs is simply not enough, and sidesteps the actual problem. Michael Gove suggested that families using foodbanks had simply failed to budget properly, while Ian Duncan Smith couldn’t even pretend to care for a full 60 minutes, sneaking out of the House of Commons debate on foodbanks early, leaving behind laughter and jeers from the Tory benches. Compassion for the British poor is completely lacking. Instead, they are met with a frightening wall of suspicion and mistrust.

Poverty becomes entertainment on shows such as Benefits Street, watched by millions to make themselves feel better. David Cameron discarded his Big Society rhetoric long ago, but existing community spirit has thankfully endured in spite of his policies, with volunteers setting up and running food banks in local communities. But the power of the right wing narrative is painfully evident when hungry parents are refusing foodbank tokens from schools out of understandable pride, and fear of being labelled a ‘scrounger’. More must be done to tackle supermarket food waste, and to focus the blame on the supermarket bosses, but the obvious idea of giving it away to people desperate for food probably makes too much sense for our Government to do much about it.

Freya Potter

Photo: property of BBC

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