Christians on The Left take food poverty debate beyond the foodbank

This is a report by Jonny Currie, a Community Development Worker in East Belfast and a member of Christians on the left, who held their inaugural event this week.

Over forty activists gathered in a lecture theatre at QUB on Thursday evening for Christians on the Left’s (COTL) inaugural Northern Ireland event. Titled “Beyond the Foodbank: Pushing the Food Poverty Debate Forward,” the event challenged those in attendance to move beyond the charitable act of food bank provision to change the wider conditions contributing to food poverty in the first place. The event was open to people of all faiths or none to attend.

COTL’s Director Andy Flanagan, from Northern Ireland, but now working and living in London, kicked off proceedings with a brief history of the organisation formerly known as the Christian Socialist Movement. COTL is affiliated to the Labour Party and exists to support, resource and network Christians who identify themselves on the left of politics in the UK, but, he said, it is open to members of all political parties or none.

The panel contributions (facilitated by Christians on the Left member Barton Creeth) were from theologians, front-line workers, clergy, and academics. There were members of the Green Party, SDLP, Alliance, PUP and Northern Ireland Labour Party in attendance.

Alan Carson, Associate Pastor of Belfast City Vineyard, talked about the development of the church’s Storehouse ministry – a foodbank that partners with over 20 schools, churches and businesses. Their approach to this ministry is to bring grace and truth, in order to earn the right to say difficult things from a place of love. While not wishing to identify with any specific political ideology, Alan affirmed the need to treat all people referred to their service with dignity.

East Belfast Independent Advice Centre (EBIAC) has been referring families to Storehouse since its inception, although the centre manager Mary McManus affirmed that providing food parcels is not something we should get used to. Mary emphasized that in conversations about the impact of welfare reform, a discussion about “poverty” is missing. Mary pointed out that while “we incentivise the wealthy by giving them money and tax breaks, we incentivise the poor by taking money from them.”

Kristen Donnelly, a Philadelphian living and working in Belfast as a PhD researcher, passionately articulated how food was a running theme in the Bible. As people of Christian faith eat, they are to remember the life of Christ. The practical out-working of this should be properly-run, dignified food banks. Coming from a North American context where food banks are “normalized” as part of daily life, Kristen declared that “Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of sustenance and community” and challenged church-based food banks here in Northern Ireland to incorporate: normalcy, community, covenant, and sacrament into their service provision.

East Belfast Mission, part of the Skainos Unit, has witnessed a tenfold growth in the number of families being referred to them for an emergency food packages at Christmas. Commenting on recent visits to a local food bank Skainos Director Glenn Jordan said that, while the many volunteers involved are committed and supportive, he hadn’t met anyone who enjoyed receiving food from a food bank.

Reflecting on Jesus feeding the five thousand, Glenn illustrated that the empty baskets collected by the boy at the end of story should draw attention to the shame of our wastefulness. Glenn challenged middle-class Christians to be on the streets protesting about why there are food banks in Northern Ireland and to “shame” our leaders about food poverty,.

Academic and Green Party Councillor John Barry continued this theme, stating that “there is no famine here. Hunger in this country is a completely human-made disaster.” He cited a crises in politics, ethics and economics which have led to a deepening inequality. This can only be challenged by moving from charity to demanding justice through righteous indignation. Food banks should be part of a wider politicization process, reconnecting the consumption of food with those who produce it. John concluded his contribution by stating that socialism, to him, is what Jesus represented.

An informed discussion then took place with the panel. The lack of concrete data on food bank usage was acknowledged as a weakness. Alan Carson said people of all ages visit Storehouse, including an increasing number of working poor, but the one demographic using the service least is older people. A food bank manager in attendance from East Belfast made the point that “scrounging” is a universal trait, and a survival instinct that is part of the human condition.

PUP Councillor John Kyle said “It’s actually not hard to incentivise work. Give people access to jobs and decent wages.” The reality of corporation tax as a form of corporate welfare led to questions about what a “just” economy should look like. Churches in Northern Ireland were also challenged as significant gatekeepers of policy change, given that many of those in positions of power in this country still sit in pews every Sunday. The impact of corrosive individualism and the erosion of social contracts were also named as barriers to hope.

The evening concluded with reference to Tony Benn’s famous words about human progress being possible through two flames in the human heart of (i) anger against injustice; and (ii) hope in a better world. This was a hugely positive evening for COTL in Northern Ireland, and we hope to build on this momentum through specific policy proposals and future opportunities for debate.

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