How do we end food bank hell?

Shelagh Young on the possibility of tackling food banks in Scotland using the U.lab process supported by the Scottish Government.

I recently attended a Scottish Government hosted workshop, which introduced a large audience to the Massachusetts institute of Technology’s (MIT) U.lab and the Presencing Institute – which self-describes as an “awareness-based action-research community that creates social technologies, builds capacities, and generates holding spaces for profound societal renewal”. It’s an exhausting jargon rich website but, as a London based changemaker said to me the other day, it feels like anything is possible in Scotland right now. Who am I to refuse to rummage through the linguistic equivalent of a dressing up box to see if there is something new that I can add to my toolkit? Maybe U.lab’s on-line learning and off-line face to face work in the form of “hubs” and coaching groups is a route to truly transformative action – to helping people like you and I work more effectively with others to help make transformative change real, right here, right now in Scotland?

The U.lab process starts with us – the listening, questioning “us” not the opinionated, have all the answers folk we often feel we need to be to grab this bit of funding or that politician’s attention. The idea of simply asking a very open question tickled my fancy –so I posed a question that niggles at me nearly all the time – “How do we end food bank hell?”

Nourish Scotland is exploring the powerful concept of establishing a right to food. We know that food banks are more than a small blemish marring the happy face of a supposedly progressive Scotland. Food banks are more like a malignant lesion – a real and present threat to the survival of decent society as we know it. The market driven mantra of consumer choice has always tended to exclude people with least resources but food banks and the increasing voucherisation of welfare show that we have moved back to the idea of deserving and undeserving people. Deciding that a particular class (in this case the unmonied) is unworthy of or not to be trusted to exercise choice steps over a moral line. Accepting that some families, including the children in those families, deserve to go hungry, which is what we have done in allowing the system of benefit sanctions to thrive, is a system of belief that shames us all.

In the rise of food banks we see the unspeakable meeting the uneatable. Poor people, whether as a result of low pay, no pay or bureaucratic cruelty (otherwise known as benefit sanctions), are no longer trusted with money to shop where others shop. They are the unspeakable because they do not fit the hardworking families narrative. Words that express the fact that labour surpluses are hardwired into our economy are dangerous. Words that tell us that hard work is not, in and of itself, a guarantee that you won’t go hungry are avoided. In refusing to name poverty as the direct outcome of the growing wealth gap we refuse to accept that being poor is down to anything but people failing to work hard enough.

And then there is the uneatable. We describe food banks as meeting “emergency” needs – what most of us call three square meals a day –and seem unable to find a route out of the national shame of meeting those needs through the recycling of waste and charitably donated food. Not the fresh and homemade stuff that meets the healthy, sustainable eating lobby’s standards but the dried and the canned, the packaged and the instant – the food with a long enough shelf life to survive a complicated journey from donors via volunteers to the people made destitute or near destitute by our rotten economy and cruel new societal norms.

Can the U.lab process help answer my question? Can we find a way out of food bank hell that doesn’t depend on Scotland gaining full control over welfare, setting a minimum wage or decalring a right to food? I don’t know about you but when my tummy rumbles I don’t think it is reasonable to be told to wait for jam tomorrow. If you like the idea of taking a seemingly intractable problem by the scruff of the neck then maybe U.lab is for you. Check it out. Anyone can get involved. As Burke nearly put it – the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good (wo)men to do nothing.

The U.lab initiative in Scotland is spear-headed by Kenneth Hogg, Director for Local Government & Communities. Find out more about U.Lab here or contact to find out more about what is happening to bring the U.lab process to Scotland. A training event for people who want to help host a group will be held on the 3rd of July:=.

Shelagh Young is a director of Nourish and currently Chair of The Phone Co-op the UK’s only customer owned phone, mobile and broadband provider.