Food Banks and hunger – What is the role of faith communities?

A guest blog by Mohammed S Mamdani

Everyone recognises hunger. It’s what makes us human. As much as food poverty is an obscenity, I am always overwhelmed by the tremendous generosity of faith groups, local businesses and members of the public that keeps Sufra NW London, a food bank of which I am a director, well-stocked throughout the year.

For people of faith, the sharing of food acquires spiritual meaning and blessing. In Hindu temples, food that is prepared for the deities is served as prashad to the congregation, where the gods and devotees give and receive in a bountiful cycle of generosity. Amongst Christians, the sacrament of bread and wine, in representation of the blood and flesh of Christ, the faithful consume the very promise of salvation. Food is the centrepiece of Jewish festivals, charting the community’s history to modernity. In Buddhist tradition, food is a gift of the earth and the sky, and eating is a timely moment for self-reflection and mindfulness. For Muslims, no meal begins without pronouncing the basmala - In the Name of God – ensuring God’s place as the provider of all sustenance. The langar or kitchen in Sikh gurdwaras, provides daily meals to all without distinction, upholding the principles of equality and unity. Indeed, the sometimes complex dietary regulations of faith communities, all seek in their own way to preserve health, well-being and solidarity with creation.

At Sufra NW London, our slogan – Give Together, Eat Together – tries to encapsulate the unity of sharing and enjoying food. The word “Sufra” originates from the Persian meaning “table-setting” or anything “on which food is served”. It carries similar connotations in Arabic, Turkish and Urdu. Traditionally, the “Sufra” was made of a round cloth or woven palm-leaves, although more recently the term is used in cultural settings to describe long rolls of plastic or paper placed on the floor within a community building to serve large numbers of guests. The “Sufra” is an open, hospitable invitation to share food with friends and family. To this end, we refer to our Food Bank users as “guests” – each family that attends the food bank is a recipient of our hospitality.

In the run-up to Christmas, food banks once again appeared at the top of the news agenda, this year, with the publication of Feeding Britain a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, and funded by the Church of England. Despite living in the sixth richest economy in the world with established welfare provisions, almost a million people now turn to food banks, unable to afford regular meals. Yet the politicisation of food banks is worrying. No doubt the plight of Britain’s hungry is an indictment of the welfare state and a slap in the face to Lord Beveridge’s noble intentions back in the 1940s when our modern system was created, but it is also uncomfortable when hunger is exploited as political fodder, dividing classes and prejudices on party-political lines. The All-Party Report is an attempt to transcend this partisan approach, but it missed opportunities to tell the story from a broader perspective. The report does not provide any valuable critique on the variable standards and practices of food banks. Nor does, the otherwise excellent, evidence review illustrate much in the way of non-Christian food banks or food-related welfare providers. Whatever the reason, it's certainly a missed opportunity.

This is not a debate about whether people are hungry or not – that is given – but about what happens next. Feeding Britain falls short for me on dealing with the practice, ethics and administration of food banks, and its recommendations are equally concerning. Alongside the usual Big Society-style pointers, it recommends the setup of Food Bank Plus, an attempt to ‘nationalise’ food banks as part of the welfare state. This presents hugely problematic consequences, both ethical and ideological. Food banks are a reality, responding to a real need where the welfare state falls short in its obligations; they can never become the welfare state, otherwise we lose the voluntary sector, which provides the only safety-net when government fails. The report is also a missed opportunity in recognising the contributions (and future role) of all faith communities in tackling poverty in Britain. The fight against poverty is of concern to all faith groups – the Church of England may lead the debate, but the stakes are too high for it to go alone.

January 2015

Sufra NW London is a community food bank and kitchen, based in the London Borough of Brent, which was set up two years ago to respond the causes and effects of local food poverty. Last year the charity collected and distributed 46 tonnes of food, supporting 3,483 people with 7 days’ food supply.

Mohammed S Mamdani, is Director of Sufra NW London and a former trustee of FbRN.