joanna blythman quote web

A scene in Ken Loach’s powerful new film, I, Daniel Blake, really brings home the abject misery and desperation of too many fellow citizens who find themselves living in poverty. In it, a young, penniless single mother who has starved herself in order to feed her kids is going round a food bank with a volunteer who is helping her select rations. But she’s so ravenous that when she thinks that nobody is looking, she lifts the ring pull on a can and starts devouring baked beans straight from the tin, before choking and bursting into tears.

The food bank volunteers are understanding. They try to help her. Kindly folk, as a viewer you feel they’ll slip an extra packet or can in her bags. But what of their contents? Last week I saw a poster calling for donations to a food bank. It asked for tinned meat, fish, jam, tinned rice and sponge pudding, instant mash, UHT milk, biscuits, pasta sauces, rice, pasta, and cereals. An emergency family food pack typically contains 22 cans.

Food banks are hugely well intended, but the truth is that they mainly dispense the sugary, starchy, processed food diet that people with more money and options actively avoid on health grounds. But the line on the poster that stabbed me even deeper in the heart read: ‘No Fresh Food Thank You’ - a common restriction in food banks.

As I, Daniel Blake shows, it only takes a relationship breakdown, ill health or redundancy to tilt into poverty all those ‘hard working families’ politicians love to laud. Watching the film crystallised for me my growing unease with the very term ‘food poverty’ and its putative ‘solutions’: redirected supermarket waste, philanthropic donations from the better-off.

A living wage and an affordable rent are non-negotiable prerequisites for getting by. When these vital supports are not in place, that’s when a humane welfare system should step in. But as Loach shows, many claimants are sanctioned and have their benefit frozen for the slightest reason, often because they are simply defeated by the autocratic bureaucracy of the system.

Poor people need money and daily access to affordable fresh food, not another sugary tea and packet of custard creams.

Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This