It felt like a good time to update on where we were with the food bank. There’s a lot of chat about food at the moment and whilst most of it is well meant some actual information, albeit from a specific and small outpost of it all, might be useful in the storm of bullshit.
We are a non means tested self referring food bank. If you ask for food you get it. We’ve done this for 8 months. We service 7500 houses, we’ve delivered over 6000 food parcels to date.
Within those figures are there some that abuse this? Yes. Are they the many of the 180 referrals we did this week? No they are the few.
Our society is in crisis. Children are hungry. We cannot fix the whole system from where we are.
We cannot fix the system. But we can stop some people being hungry. This week. And next. And on.
That would have felt a small tawdry ambition last year. Now I understand that it takes an army of volunteers, amazing partners, so many funders, and so much energy and patience.
The vast majority of our food comes from The Real Junk Food Project: a radical programme led by Adam Smith to transform how we use waste food. He sorts us out. We do what we can for his project: Sending vans, volunteers, staff and when we have it, cash: Adam says it is a circular relationship. But we need him.
Of the rest of the food 20% is donations: especially from the local churches. And 20% of our food is from Leeds City Council/Fareshare programme of food bags. This is the official programme of food bag provision from the city. We buy the rest (milk, fruit and veg, eggs).
In terms of cash the operation costs £8k a month (this obviously doesn’t include Slung Low staff, van, space etc). Leeds City Council grant is £8k a quarter. The rest is donations and Slung Low’s income from other activities (you pay us to make you a play, a lot of that money goes into the Foodbank). A lot of these donations are a result of people’s imagination: imaging how hard this is and wanting to help, imagining how much this is needed, imagining how it must feel to need this.
We are supported by Clipper and Leeds United with a large refrigerated container in our car park that is vital storage.
All of this is a creative act. We are telling the story that no one need go hungry in Holbeck and Beeston during this crisis. To tell this story the best way we can we have to make it true. We are making it true.
There is politics in food banks. There is politics in food. The politics is mostly wrapped up in the idea that you can become addicted to food parcels. You cannot become addicted to food. It is something that the various authorities worry about alot- “we mustn’t let people get reliant on free food.” It’s why they’ve just voted to not extend the free school meals even though it’s a comparatively small amount of money: it’s a political choice. It’s a failure of imagination, to imagine other people, other ways of living.
But it isn’t just about people who are actually in this moment hungry and will remain so for days: although we do have some of those needs in Holbeck & Beeston.
When the first lockdown happened my cupboards were full. Of course they were. I was able to support my family by having a mini fucking room full of food just waiting there- no being a Wally with pasta in Tescos for me. That wasn’t true of people who have, for their entire adult life, lived hand to mouth not because I am inherently better than them but because I am lucky (and male, white, straight, not yet disabled), and that luck has led to an almost unbelievable amount of privilege. That privilege filled my cupboards. Not my hard work. The woman who cleans the club doesn’t work any less hard than I do. You know this if you have an iota of imagination.
So when families this autumn started saying “it’s okay now we don’t need anymore food deliveries” we said, take another month load, fill your cupboards because lockdown is coming again and when it does those full cupboards will mean no panic. For a week, until you get hold of us, or find another solution. That lack of panic. That removal of that moment of fear, of WHAT THE FUCK AM I GOING TO DO. That isn’t something recognised by the current food bank system. That isn’t about starving. That’s about not feeling panic. Imagine that panic. Imagine that panic not being there.
We have been asked by Fareshare and the City Council to ask every one who gets a parcel from us five questions before giving them food and then report the answers back along with information about the person’s characteristics;
1. What is the reason for your crisis?
2. How long do you feel you might need some help for?
3. What support would help to alleviate your crisis?
4. Have you contacted any other services for help?
5. Have you been to any other food provider
We can’t do this.
The premise of the question assumes this is a passing temporary crisis. And one that can be solved by the proper usage of the current support system. That the DWP is our saviour.
The people who receive our food aren’t lazy. They aren’t stupid. They are born in a society where the inequalities of funding, of education, of health provision, of opportunity are so profound that the hill they have to climb is steeper than is reasonable. They live in a society that has encouraged zero hour contract working with the lie of freedom and choice and now believes that the reason so many children of these workers, who find themselves with unreliable incomes, irregular hours and an administrative cruel benefits system, are hungry is because of a temporary crisis. The crisis isn’t temporary. It isn’t a crisis. It’s a way of living. An enforced way of living.
Until recently we took food from Costco on a Wednesday. The rule was you had to take everything they laid out for you. There was often lots of exciting things- cakes, meat, all sort of good stuff. But there was also piles of shit. Mouldy stuff. Packs of butter with boot prints. And you had to take it all so we often had to pay to have it removed from the club by waste disposal. A cost that should have been Costcos- £300 a tonne. Except their charitable giving- charity that saw a footprint in a pack of butter if you like your metaphors to the point- saved them the cost.
And the most extraordinary thing was every week the same shit. How do we have algorithms that can tell you what exam result someone not yet born will get but Costco didn’t understand that every Wednesday they would fail to sell 19 huge cheesecakes, 600 dinner rolls and 50 bags of mouldy lettuce? What always frustrated me was that all this stuff was dated the day we fetched it and we’d race around desperately trying to get rid of it or have to pay to have it removed. And yet I knew (after a few months it was obvious) that Costco knew the day before, the day before the day before that this stuff wasn’t needed.
They didn’t care enough to bother. The imagination just wasn’t there. They had found a way to pass their removal costs to food banks and look good doing it.
And yet with this waste food I could feed many families. It was discarded, sitting in the sun in the Car park in trolleys waiting for us. This, this little thing makes a difference to a family between having enough and smiling at each other or being hungry, tired, angry.
The gap between the disdain Costco showed that food and the impact it has on lives is the whole ball game. It’s why hunger is a moral issue. It is entirely unnecessary, it is cruel, and to pretend that it is the fault of those who experience it is to be wilfully lacking in imagination.
People keep asking “why is a theatre company running a food bank”. We live in a city of an opera company, a ballet company, a producing house and so many other great cultural offerings and there are children in our community without crayons. Until everyone has crayons no one should have fucking ballet. And what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
People keep asking “why is a theatre company running a food bank”. Because it is obscene to put on brilliant theatre in a car park and have people who can see that car park from their windows suffer hunger. Because if you live in holbeck you might not actually starve in front of me but you won’t have the choices to buy your kids some new shoes, some crayons, to go out together to the city centre and visit the library, or to treat yourself to a couple of beers on a Saturday night after making it through the week. And we are trying to create the best arts centre slash community hub slash pub slash community college in the world. And it feels like the act of an actual prick if people who live within sight of the place are too weak from hunger, or too battered by the panic of food poverty to think about maybe coming.
And for months now we’ve answered patiently the question- why is a theatre company doing this- and the slightly sharper- you’re not suggesting that arts funding is used to help alleviate these problems that aren’t our responsibility, ARE YOU?!
Well I heard Sonia Friedman on the radio that she was putting on a west end comedy to help the mental health of the nation so I think we’ve brought some of this on ourselves. I’ve seen millions be given to commercial and subsidised venues even as we can’t find enough for school meals extension and at some point I’ve stopped saying “well I don’t think every theatre should open a food bank no” and changed it to “well I don’t think every theatre should open a food bank no but this sector, which prides itself on its imagination should do something. Can do something. For months Foodbanks were desperate for vans and there were so many vans on the forecourts of arts organisations doing nothing and that is a failure of imagination. Of theatre with empty fridges and freezers and so many charitable organisations desperate for spaces in both and that is a failure of imagination. And CRF is here and the money is here to shore up organisations, and to support the making of many redundant which made me realise that maybe the money wasn’t rescuing who I thought it was and there is a choice to look for long term safety or immediate vitalness. And look at your communities. Look at the levels of unemployment, look at child hunger, look at the panic and weariness of your fellow citizens, in the communities your audiences comes from , and crucially those they don’t and no, you don’t have to open a food bank. But you do have to do something. Or they will remember what we all did as a sector, and all we did not. We have the power to reimagine our relationship, what we are for and what we can achieve. Or we cannot. But they’ll remember. They’ll all remember.”
AND I AM DOING FINE THANK YOU. I AM ABSOLUTELY COPING WITH THE SHEER CRUELTY OF ALL OF THIS. I AM FINE.
Imagine being hungry. And approaching a man for food. And him saying “I’ll give you this food, but first, tell me what has brought you to this crisis?” Well so many things that before I’m through with my list I’ll have withered away to nothing so friend, how about you give me the tin of tuna first and then we’ll get in to it.
Imagine. Imagine asking that.
I can’t. That is my failure. I can’t imagine asking that. So we won’t. And that means that we move forward without the support of FareShare and LCC’s food provision. We’ve done 6115 referrals so far.
This doesn’t mean that we will stop. We’ve promised to drive on with this action into 2021 and beyond. It does mean we will do it without this specific support. It won’t shake our commitment. It will make our life harder. But then our lives can afford that additional hardness. Not all can.
We have another 6115 referrals ahead of us. It will be impossible without a raft of support. Of our ward councillors and area officers, of The Real Junk Food Project, of the local churches and Holbeck Foodbank and of course of you. Thousands of acts of support small and large. That is what it will take. And I can imagine that.
Some people have got in touch asking to be directed to where they can donate. There’s a paypal link at http://www.slunglow.org and anything given there will be spent on milk, fresh fruit, eggs and nappies. If you can, thanks.