I love food. I have a confession to make, I love it so much that I often eat to much and very often take for granted what I eat and how easily I access it. So it was a challenge recently to stop, to think a bit more and take the challenge to ‘live below the line‘ for 5 days and as a family of 4 to eat for just £20 over 5 days. It was a pale reflection of the reality of so many people’s lives on a daily, regular basis.
It highlights the importance to balance being able to receive with gratitude and also give with generosity. Both are vital and important, just as the food we it is. Food is so much more than a ‘fuel’ that keeps us going and gets us through the day. It’s a vitally important relational, communal, spiritual thing.
Food, it would seem, is increasingly becoming a vital thing for us to reflect on, cherish, share, provide, secure and faces into the heart of humanity and what it means to be human. We need films and books like this
We are growing more food, especially Tomatoes, and also know more friends and communities who are setting up communal allotments and gardens. It’s a great thing. It makes me appreciate just in a small way a greater connection with the source and origins of food that I am so often removed from.
In an age in the UK where we are seeing perhaps as many as 500,000 people reliant upon Food Banks, and at the same time a greater disconnection with ‘the land’ and growing food, as well as less communal eating and sharing, this is a big and needed challenge and area to think about and do something about in practice.
As we have been hearing and campaigning. There is enough for for everyone…. IF…
How can we play our part in being grateful and generous?
The other day, in my local Cafe Nero, my phone calls intrigued my neighbours and led to random conversations; one with a media guy studying politics whose colleague was making a film about Iranian asylum seekers and one with a convert to Islam who had retrained as an ethical organic Halal slaughterer. I love London. Then a stranger I’d been emailing through Streetbank popped in to give me her unwanted mini hair straighteners in exchange for a redundant phone charger (she’d given hers away to a stranger on the train thinking she had a spare). I walked home full of the joys of spring and excited about the possibilities of community.
Streetbank has been blogged about before on Breathe, but perhaps it’s time for some re-inspiration. In a nutshell, it’s a movement of people (19,655 of them at the last count) who share with their neighbours. And here’s why I’m up for being part of it.
Firstly, it’s a good reminder that we don’t need to own everything ourselves. In an act of virtual curtain-twitching, I enjoyed watching the delight of one neighbour who’d borrowed walking poles from another for a weekend in the countryside. Borrowing things makes sense pragmatically because few people in London have excess storage space for occasional-use items but, more than that, it’s also a way of living counter-culturally in a society which keeps telling us to accumulate ad infinitum. It’s one little way of reminding ourselves that building bigger barns for all our surplus was never in the game plan.
Secondly, I like that its benefits are not just financial but social. In reality, it would’ve been quicker and easier for my neighbour to have ordered a replacement phone charger online for next day delivery than to go to the trouble of collecting my old one. But online shopping can’t beat the added-value of giving to/receiving from an actual person. It’s that same satisfaction you get when you find a well-fitting bargain in a charity shop. The whole experience took me back to those halcyon days of living in community when we’d scrounge a spare mattress from over the road to accommodate extra guests, share cars, pop into each other’s houses, or borrow giant Jenga from our street’s Nepalese pub to use at youth group. Spontaneous neighbourliness seems harder in London, so it’s nice to be helped along the way.
Bringing together the ideas of challenging consumerism and reconnecting with our neighbours, I reckon that Streetbank can also be a local outworking of a commitment to broader global concerns. The recent tragedy at the garment factory in Bangladesh is a wake-up call to the fact that our incessant desire for cheap stuff has led to incessant production around the world for which others are paying the price, whether through exploitative labour, impoverishing trade agreements, or forced displacement, to name but a few. In some small way, sharing and reusing locally is one facet of our solidarity with unseen neighbours who bear the brunt of our society’s greed.
After my warm-fuzzy-feeling Streetbank experience, my mum popped my little utopian bubble by questioning how sensible it was to sign up to a scheme which encouraged you to interact with and lend to strangers. What if you don’t get your stuff back? What if you arrange to exchange goods with someone who turns out to be a psychopath? Well, the system mitigates against free-loading by requiring every member to offer to give or lend something themselves, but even then I guess that hospitality always carries a risk. That’s just how things are and it’s probably a good way of training ourselves to be disciples of one who told us to give to those who ask and who practiced what he preached. As for the psychopath question, I’m probably assuming that most Streetbankers are nice middle class people who aspire to community and that it’ll all be ok in the end.
Nevertheless, my mum’s hesitations got me thinking about how far we have wandered from an ideal in which people are together with everything in common, giving to those in need. I’m not sure if I’m bemused or saddened by the fact that we have to put systems like Streetbank in place to make this happen because other cultures seem to practice open-handed hospitality so much more intuitively. Perhaps this is just the reality of disjointed big city life? Or does it highlight our affluence and lack of need (I think of the generosity I’ve experienced in much poorer countries and of times in the UK when I was invited to share food with young asylum seekers who had pooled their resources for a decent meal yet unhesitatingly shuffled round to make space for me). Or does it point back to our anxiety-inducing misaligned priorities and objects of faith?
Whatever you put it down to, it’s no surprise that there’ve been so many policy efforts to unshackle good neighbours and foster social capital. In spite of my significant reservations about the political Big Society which champions these concepts, I’m nevertheless grateful that Streetbank has ridden this wave and directed its entrepreneurial efforts towards investment in alternative forms of interacting both with our (local and global) neighbours and our stuff.
Assuming that community and sharing etc. etc. are facilitated through trust and relationship, my Streetbank neighbour and I are planning a pub trip next week. We’re inviting all our local Streetbankers and hope it will get everyone just that little bit more inspired. I’ll drink to that.
Transparency on the global landscape is not an end in itself but a needful value towards the effectiveness of aid and justice for all. The IF campaign is a great coalition: yes a truly great coalition teaming together petition and practicalities in a demand for an ending to the scandal of hunger.
Transparency will often be a thing that is left vague, fuzzy or maliciously obscured for wrongful gain. The call for transparency is vital as an approach that underpins all development activity.
might be a historic push for greater transparency in land acquisitions, a commitment to stop
corrupt deals and the establishment of data checks to hold governments and companies to
confidence in talking about this: become an advocate for a truer way!
Johnny is new to the Breathe team, an Anglican pastor in London who eats too much chocolate and is still being challenged by this consumer-detox revolution! www.johnnydouglas.org
This month’s links
This week is the Live Below the Line challenge, and thousands of people will be sticking to a budget of £1 a day for their food. It's to raise awareness of and raise money for global poverty, and it's now in its third year. We're not taking part this year, but you can see what we learned from last year's experiences here…
This is a Guest post from Laura Taylor who is Tearfund’s Public Policy Team Leader. This post originally appeared on Tearfund’s Just Policy Blog. Breathe has signed up to be part of the coalition of the IF Campaign, of which Tearfund is also a member.
Hunger is one of the most visible signs of poverty. A child’s bloated belly or a grandfather’s withered arm are images which we too often see on the TV in a time of crisis and which stay with us for years to come. Tackling hunger is very much part of Tearfund’s business. We were set up in 1968 by UK churches who wanted to respond to the severe famine in West Africa, and have provided emergency food supplies in countless crises since then. We also work alongside many churches around the world as they mobilise communities to find their own, more long term solutions to improve their food security and health, from sustainable farming to hygiene promotion, to speaking out against land grabs.
But, in a world where there is enough food for everyone, it is outrageous that one in eight people go to bed hungry every night. It is vital that the root causes of hunger are tackled which is why the IF campaign, which Tearfund is part of, is so important. Ahead of the G8 we are calling on leaders to fight land grabs, tax dodging and corruption and to ensure that promises of aid and climate finance are delivered and spent well. Thousands of our supporters have been joining this call for real change.
But it hasn’t escaped my notice that, as well as being the year where leaders can make decisions which will help to end extreme hunger around the world, 2013 may also be a year remembered for alarming increases in hunger in the UK. Reports of children returning to school malnourished due to the lack of free lunches over the holidays have really shocked us. As steady work becomes more difficult to find and delays and cuts in the provision of emergency assistance in our own country increase, the press have noticed that many churches have been stepping into the breach here as well as overseas.
Tearfund hosted a meeting in Parliament today and were joined by the Trussell Trust, the Christian charity who are behind many of the food banks which have been springing up across the country.
Their aim is to step into the breach if a family hits a crisis and to provide a limited supply of food, provided by local people and businesses free of charge, until appropriate state or alternative provision can be arranged. As times get tougher, the numbers needing this kind of help are steadily increasing and their volunteers are doing amazing work.
Of course, as we know from our experience overseas, emergency aid like this is a vital sticking plaster, but inadequate on its own. Foodbanks are a crucial last port of call but can’t provide a sustainable solution for families or act as a replacement for the state. What is clear is that, in the UK as well as overseas, the church needs to go beyond emergency relief to build longer term resilience and to tackle the root causes of hunger – and in many cases it is.
Other organisations, like Christians Against Poverty (who I’m proud to say Tearfund helped to birth), provide debt counselling, and The Lighthouse Group, who Tearfund also partners with, are mentoring and counselling kids at risk of being excluded from school. These kind of initiatives help to people to take control of their own situation before crisis point is reached, to manage their resources and to develop skills which should equip them well for the long term and ensure that meals are not missed.
And churches and NGOs in the UK are also engaging with policy makers – from local authorities to the Prime Minister – to hold leaders to account for the way that they deal with those in most need. In Parliament today, Chris Mould, the Executive Chairman of Trussell Trust, quoted the prophet Jeremiah to remind the MPs and Lords there that their responsibility should be to defend the cause of the poor and the needy. He explained that many of the people who arrive in food banks are there because the wages they are earning are too low to support the whole family, or because they have fallen through a bureaucratic gap. There are policy changes that they could work for which could improve this situation.
The church and many others in society are doing great work, but let’s not rest on our laurels. While people are hungry we need to continue to meet their immediate needs, empower them to feed themselves and to work with them to tackle the injustices which keep them hungry. Let’s make 2013 a year to remember for the right reasons.
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