For a few decades following the Green Revolution and its conversion of land and fossil fuels into bumper harvests it felt, for wealthy nations at least, that finally there was more than enough food. Hunger seemed far away from the discourse of progress and plenty. The structural violence underpinning the starvation of unseen millions has never disappeared but in Britain, welfare policy and a rapidly industrialising post-war food system combined to fill most bellies. Throughout the seventies and eighties, food culture centred on the diversifying cuisine resulting from migration and travel, as supermarket shelves groaned with ever-increasing choice and the proportion of income people spent on food shrank considerably. Convenience and brand advertising filled screens. But our relationship with food has grown more complex. Today, the media is permeated with food stories. From snacking on the Tube to horse burgers and the cancer-preventing qualities of kale, food matters constantly cook up anxious minds. Concerns over food range from the serious to the silly, be it the impacts of climate change on potato yields or the breakfast cereal café that might just have killed the Hipster.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but food is something we all need every day to survive. In a few hours’ time, we’ll all be hungry again – food forms a mundane backdrop to every day. It’s also pretty special. The muscles in my typing fingers are moved by energy I got from plants that turned sunlight into stored energy, sandwiched between other foods that were processed and cooked and packaged in a factory many miles and processes away from the places where I bought and ate it. Provisioning is a part of our daily lives – finding time to budget for food, buy it, cook it and clean up after it. Food simmers with social meaning, from the brands we choose to whether we compost the leftovers. We use it to express values, quench desires, show love and make friends.
The meanings we ascribe to food can also express our politics. In our late-capitalist age much ‘food culture’ is based on an imaginary and romanticized yesteryear, a gendered one in which women merrily stirred pots of jam and meat was hauled in by the men after a shotgun-toting walk in the woods. The reality for many has been one of backbreaking labour, often done by women and still a hallmark of daily life for millions: gathering fuel, maintaining fires, pounding grains. The rise of cuisine, as anthropologist Jack Goody argued, accompanied growing class stratification in Europe. The class politics of cooking continue to boil tempers, so that it’s no wonder that Anne Jenkin’s remarks that poor people should eat more porridge met with fury. Not only were her remarks patronizing, but they implied that hunger is a matter of individual competence alone, ignoring the structural barriers to healthy food for all. Shopping, cooking and eating are bound up in the unfair playing field of an industrial corporate food system and unequal access to food. No wonder the media have seized on food stories as markers of societal change.
Reports of ‘food riots’ in 2008 shed light on global price rises [due to food corporation speculation, as this talk explains] but also peoples’ anger at governments’ failure to protect them. In Britain, such rumblings of dissent and a food system in crisis might seem far off when you’re in Tesco stumped by the choice of biscuits…or when you see a supermarket skip brimming with edible food. However, growing evidence about rising hunger levels in the UK and the response of charities have raised important questions about the social justice of our food system, its relationship to labour and economic policy and, critically, the way we view each other.
The figure of the foodbank would come top of my nominations for an emblem of Cameron’s Big Society. As inflation, cuts to services and welfare sanctions place greater pressure on peoples’ budgets for food, energy and shelter (as an All-Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger recently confirmed), the charitable sector has come out in force to pick up the pieces. That force is never enough. Despite the huge increase in emergency food aid and a proliferation of programmes designed to redirect food waste to feed hungry people, food banks frequently run out of food and are only ever a patchy and temporary solution to those who find themselves reliant on handouts. Peoples’ reasons for visiting food banks are diverse and only ever a short-term option, despite the predictable slew of vitriol in newspaper comment threads slung at foodbank users who spend money on fags or dog food. Hell, if I were unemployed and sanctioned for missing a JobCentre Plus appointment and standing in a foodbank queue in the cold, a rollie might feel like my only act of agency or pleasure.
Mainstream media has painted a largely positive picture of food aid providers as virtuous heroes standing between a coldly retreating state and the deathly embrace of hunger, isolation and social breakdown. The religious ethic of food aid charities such as the Trussell Trust has been variously interpreted as a bum-on-seat agenda for a declining institution or as a manifestation of moral values of kindness, non-judgement and giving in an austere age. Critics argue that such food charity depoliticizes hunger and even sustains the situation by creating an impression that hunger is being ‘managed’ and thus needless of systemic change. They point in warning to North America, where foodbanking has become ‘entrenched’ over several years of institutionalization and corporatization. Food giants such as Kelloggs and Unilever presenting themselves as part of the solution can be seen as part of their attempt to increase their market share, either by enabling their surplus stock to be managed by charities rather than expensively landfilled, or by serving branded breakfast cereals to school children. However, it could be argued that food banks also serve as a mirror to hunger: they present themselves as a short-term and partial but necessary solution and, through their connections with statutory services, act as advocates and flag-markers for where the system is failing individuals (in large numbers).
Growing recognition of high levels of food waste has resulted in attempts to divert ‘surplus’ food to food aid providers, portrayed as a ‘win-win’ solution to food waste and food poverty. Can this be seen as foisting ‘second-rate’ food onto people surplus to labour requirements, rather than enabling them to acquire food in ‘culturally appropriate’ ways? Food waste in such vast quantities represents another symptom of an unjust food system (not to mention an environmental nightmare), but simply diverting it to food charity fails to address the causes of both waste and hunger. Choice and quality are necessarily limited (a trip to the foodbank might result in the kind of grim Ready Steady Cook conundrums cleverly satirised in this microplay ).
In a blog post about working at his local food bank, (he’s also writing a book about freeganism called ‘Waving the banana at Capitalism’), Alex Barnard points out the fraught ethics of filling peoples’ food aid boxes with unsuitable food that will probably end up being wasted anyway. At a food distribution session run by an anarchist refugee support organisation in Glasgow, I noticed the fresh produce get snapped up while the array of Whole Foods desserts and speciality foods got left behind. However, it seems that food waste redistribution charities are being pushed by supermarkets to accept ever greater quantities of short-dated ready meals, rather than being supported in the logistically-heavy work of gleaning ‘imperfect’ farm produce or collecting surplus veg from wholesale markets, which is the food most in demand by community organisations who feed people.
The last hundred years saw immense changes in the way food is grown, processed, distributed, sold and eaten. The next hundred years will see more immense changes as climate change continues to bite, technology and energy evolve and populations grow and move. We could simply look out for our own bellies or we could choose to address the massive inequalities in access to food. However, history should have taught us that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. The failed development projects of the late 20th century should remind us that ‘doing good’ may not only obscure diverse interpretations of ‘good’, but can also mask hidden agendas that place the powerless in relationships of dependency and obedience. With this in mind, take another look at the food bank collection in the front of your supermarket and have a think about why hunger is happening, and how we might solve it. Then take a look at the skip out back (mind the barbed wire and security guard). The ‘paradox’ of hunger and waste is alive and well. But it reveals two sides of the same coin – a system of food commodification that denies food freedom for many of us and our neighbours.
By Charlie Spring