Writing in the Mail on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury has tackled the question of food banks, in advance of a national report on the phenomenon of hunger in Britain. On one matter the Archbishop hits the nail on the head: we expect hunger in Africa, sadly, but that it happens in Britain too, one of the world’s richest countries, is shocking. The Archbishop is also right to focus on the way so much food gets thrown away. That too is a scandal, and one that needs to end. We urgently need to explore ways through which we can make it easier for retailers to give away surplus food.
The provision of food for the hungry is something of which the Catholic Church (and other Churches too, of course) has some experience in Africa and also in Europe. In the city of Rome, the diocesan Caritas (this is the name given to the official Catholic charity, ‘la Caritas di Roma’, which comes under the umbrella of Caritas Internationalis) runs something called ‘la mensa di Caritas’, the Caritas canteen, which is situated near Termini station. Here, people who need it, and who are mainly immigrants, can get a square meal. Caritas also does a lot of other good work, essentially providing social services, which, in Italy, are scarce. One needs to register with Caritas to benefit; they give you a sort of identity card, called ‘la tessera’ which then means you have access to medical services and counselling, or the ‘centro accoglienza’ as they call it. You can see what is on offer here (in Italian). It is, I think, very impressive, and it is mainly staffed by devoted volunteers. And it has been going on for years.
One of the things the good Archbishop highlights is the social aspect of food banks. They provide a listening ear to people, and this is surely important, as generally the problem of hunger is not the only problem that those using food banks are living with. In fact hunger is usually the symptom of deeper rooted problems. Hungry people may be unable to provide food for themselves because of bad housing (no proper kitchen, or place to store food) or worse, no housing at all. Hungry people may be mentally ill, and not receiving the care they need. Hungry people may have money, but be unable to manage it properly. They may be alcoholic or drug addicted, or the victims of domestic violence. If a family comes to a food bank, because they have run out of food, one needs to ask what else is wrong.
Paradoxically, in Africa, where famine is all too common, the usual reason is because the harvest has failed. But even there, questions have to be asked. The harvest may have failed in one part of the country, but not in the other: why can’t food be transported? Why can’t food be stored, so years of plenty may make up for years of want, as Joseph did in Egypt? And again, why is it that Australia, victim of repeated crop failures of late, has never experienced a famine?
In Africa the causes of famine are bad weather conditions compounded by bad political conditions. In Britain hunger is caused by poverty, but poverty is not to be confused with a simple lack of cash. Just as political corruption causes famines, in Britain it is family dysfunctionality that causes hunger. That is why the food bank and the Caritas approach is the right one. It is not enough to provide food, though that is essential; one must also provide help in the form of counselling.
That last word has got a bit of a bad reputation for itself in Britain today. There has been an expansion of counselling services in recent decades, but is it the right sort of counselling? We need to remember that counselling is a good thing if done properly. The Holy Spirit is the Wonderful Counsellor, let’s not forget, and priests were in the business of offering counselling in the confessional centuries before everyone else got involved. But this sort of counselling relies on a very firm set of values; the Counsel of the Holy Spirit or the counsel of the Mother of Good Counsel likewise mediates a set of transcendent values, the human and divine good. Counselling without a firm idea of what is good for humanity is not much help, and may be harmful.
Archbishop Welby’s article talks of the necessity of legislation and funding. Sad, but true: every discussion in this country in the end hits the funding question at some point. But what we really need to encounter is the value question. For those of us with enough to eat, we need to ask what sort of Britain do we want to live in? And for those who do not have enough to eat, they need to ask themselves how they can reclaim their innate human dignity.