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Column: Mark Steel
Two things are increasing at once in Britain--the number of people going to food banks for help and the hostility of the government toward people going to food banks for help.
June 13, 2013AT LAST there's some cheery news about the British economy. One section is booming, which is the thriving business of food banks.
The number of people using them, on account of being too poor to afford food, has tripled in the past year to 500,000. When Fred Goodwin hears there are banks increasing their turnover this much, he'll launch a takeover bid, hoping to double the share price before causing them to collapse, at which point he'll award himself a bonus of 5 million packets of garlic sausage.
Oxfam says "changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks," but the Department for Work and Pensions disagrees, saying the benefits system leaves "no one having to struggle to meet their basic needs." And that must be true, as long as you don't include food as a basic need.
In fact, it shows how out of control the benefits system has become, when so many claimants are wasting it on frivolities such as food. People on benefits will have to learn to live on goods that are cheaper than food, such as early morning walks, a sense of humor or particles of light.
Iain Duncan Smith might also tell them he has a two million pound Tudor house, and some of the furniture in that place has been around for 300 years and not needed a single plate of food in all that time, so it shows it can be done.
The government also seems to be suggesting there is no link between the changes in the benefit system and the rising numbers at food banks. So there must be some other reason. Maybe there was an episode of River Cottage in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall makes a supper out of a tin of soup and baked beans, saying: "And the ingredients absolutely have to be from a food bank, as the proximity to despair gives them that exquisite fruity tang."
Or there was an A.A. Gill review of a food bank that went: "One scarcely had time to cleanse the palate of the most succulent tuna chunks in brine, aspirational and yet mischievous in its piscine intent, when one fell upon the truly celestial virtues of a Müller vanilla yogurt, served with ultimate panache by a volunteer from Oxfam in the angelic setting of a car park round the back of Lidl."
Their popularity has grown so much that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food said the Government "now accepts them as the norm, which they absolutely should not be." Maybe that's the plan, to make food banks so common we accept that many people are too poor to afford food, as part of our culture.
Every few weeks on Come Dine with Me, one of the contestants will say: "I'm going for a starter of Heinz tomato soup, and then we'll have a little break of a day while I wait for my next food bank voucher, and for the main course, I'm going to serve whatever soup they've got tomorrow." Then one of the others will say: "The nibbles of a selection of weeds from the park were quite unusual, and the game of turning off the lights to hide from the bailiff was fun, so I'm giving him an eight."
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ALL THIS takes place in an atmosphere of hostility towards people on benefits, who are supposedly swiping unprecedented sums while spending all day indoors with the blinds down. So the reason for the increase in numbers relying on food banks must be due to a sudden surge in laziness. Over the past year, another 300,000 people have thought: "I can't be bothered to make my own sandwiches any more. So I'm going to fill in a series of forms to apply for a food bank voucher, proving my low income, queue up at a church hall, and get one already made by a volunteer."
It's the only explanation. For example, there's Kenny, whose story was told in the Independent yesterday. He has a spinal injury that prevents him from working, but still acts as a full-time caregiver for his even sicker wife. Changes in the benefit system have left him reliant on a food bank. See, it's just "take, take, take" with some people, isn't it?
The story repeated by many claimants is of a change not just in the rules, but in the attitude. They're suspended from benefits regularly, the payments take longer to arrive, and as one disabled woman told me this week: "I now have a dread of any letter that comes recorded delivery, in case it's a letter to tell me my benefit's been cut."
Presumably it's similar for another claimant, Philip Green, owner of Topshop, whose wife is based in Monaco, thus saving the tycoon's family hundreds of millions in tax.
Luckily, the government had a twinge of conscience and chose a different strategy with him. Instead of sending a threatening letter, it invited him to be one of its advisers--on how to cut public spending. And he must be ideal for the job, wandering along the queues at food banks saying: "Now you've been given that margarine, why don't you make it last longer by putting half of it in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands? And put your voucher in your wife's name, then you'll be able to get some milk and a banana."
First published at the Independent.