Food, poverty, mutual aid: Reflections from Birmingham solidarity kitchen

According to a recent report by The Food Foundation, 1.5 million people have reported going an entire day without food due to poverty during the coronavirus crisis. This is as sickening as it is unsurprising. Ten years of brutal austerity had already left millions living pay-check to pay-check before the shuttering of the economy. Now, with businesses closed and thousands of jobs lost, more and more people are having to chose between paying rent and putting food on the table.

Food aid is going to become one of the most pressing concerns for the working class as we once again fall into economic recession (if not an out-and-out depression), with food supply chains disrupted and climate change causing further unpredictability.

We cannot merely rely on the food bank model in this crisis or beyond it. Food banks arose in force after the 2008 recession (although they existed in a smaller way before this) and their existence has always been a way of mitigating the worst affects of austerity but on the terms of the ruling class. The vouchers system, introduced in the wake of benefit sanctions, exists to gate-keep who is able to get aid and access to food. People in need are required to explain and justify themselves, they are required to engage with the system of professionals and the third sector who are allowed to have a large amount of control over the lives of the working class.

This control by the third sector mixed in with state welfare provision, NGOs and charities gives us a distinct lack of accountability, a system of gatekeeping and bureaucratic violence that is rarely challenged. This has been a deliberate strategy of disempowerment of the working class by the Tories and New Labour. The welfare state exists in nebulous terms, pushing further and further from accountability of any sort and into a continuous cycle of funding bids amid cuts to disable any useful resource allocation. Food banks are very much a part of the charity sector and suffer similar foils. They are beholden to their wealthy donors and patrons and must administer their aid under certain guidance which prevents them from an unconditional relationship with those whom they serve. Fundamentally, most charities and NGOs are top-down bureaucratic gatekeepers designed to discipline the working class with a distinct paternalism that cannot exist within real solidarity. The DWP, social workers, police and even doctors are the inner layer of these disciplinary measures and we should not be fooled into thinking otherwise as their work is outsourced elsewhere (into the third sector). 

It is important that we lead in a counter-narrative to this. That we try to do things without this gatekeeping, this bureaucracy, these conditions. That we are unconditional. That we are for the working class getting what they want. This is a part of why a group of us decided to organise a solidarity kitchen in Birmingham, providing free vegan meals to over 150 people a day. We operate on the principles described; we take no money for food nor do we have any restrictions on who can request it other than our own capacity to provide. The project has shown us that the demand for this provision far outstrips anything we could possibly provide in this city.

Mutual aid projects like ours should avoid capitulating to and allowing themselves to be co-opted by local government schemes, which would have them perform their voluntary labour in the stead of a real investment in resources and provision for the people. Under the guise of saying they’d like to promote your group or project many councils are likely to take the credit when the chips are down, any money or resource they offer will likely come with a price. Many councils are relying heavily on voluntary workers to do their jobs for them. This is part of the corrupt system of the welfare states slippage into the third sector described above. It comes with all the same violence. A balance must be found between accessing resources and remaining fully able to meet the needs of the working class without conditions and without paternalism.

In terms of the food aid itself, redistribution is only a small part of how we should address this issue. We also need to view the entire chain of production and it’s inefficiency. Food banks and most food related projects in cities focus on the problem of how to distribute the food which is already in circulation. Food banks, in particular, tend to rely on things like wealthier people donating out of pocket and bringing food from supermarkets in or sourcing food from suppliers who have taken from ‘supermarket surplus’. There are projects which also focus on redistributing supermarket food waste i.e. circumventing some of the surplus. These are all things which can be done with relative immediacy. However, they do not address the full picture.

The fact is that, as has been highlighted by the early days of the corona virus crisis, supermarket supply chains operate upon a ‘just in time’ logic which cannot adapt to sudden changes in demand nor shortages from their own suppliers. Our food supply system is decidedly precarious and heavily reliant upon cheap migrant labour, large scale import and that same cheap labour taking place continuously in the global south.

Without import of goods this island would very quickly hit crisis and be unable to feed its people. In the UK two thirds of the land is owned by only 0.6% of the population, meaning that we do not have access to the means of producing our own autonomous food supplies. Nor, one could argue, could we reasonably produce enough were land actually communalised – we are dependent upon food supplies from abroad to some extent in almost all instances.

So, then, a political project to combat food poverty should operate on multiple levels. Both redistribution projects but also projects creating the conditions for autonomous production. This could be done via challenging the way that land rights operate in the country, looking at how farming and agricultural work is done, the supply chains of the food we eat and how this is done purely for profit. Again we see the pattern of a profit motive creating both overproduction and scarcity simultaneously – i.e. the supermarkets’ abundant food supplies at the mercy of exploitative labour practices, inefficient land use, mass importation in contrast with the staggering numbers of people unable to access these supplies. Food is an abstraction in this process, no longer carrying the meaning of providing sustenance to people who need it.

As ever, I am reminded of the reasons that I am an anarchist – the staggering inefficiency with which our planets resources are shared, the drive to destroy this planet for a minority rather than care take it for a majority and the incomprehensible cruelty of denying those basic resources to people who need it.

Yarrow Way

Photo credit: Cooperation Birmingham