Opinion

There's a hidden problem with supermarkets campaigning for food banks at Christmas

Food bank manager Charlotte White asks if an influx in seasonal interest further institutionalises them as a response to poverty?

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Image: Unsplash

Christmas season is in full swing at the food bank. Our sessions are busy, with high levels of new guests alongside the large existing guest base that has built up through the year. Thankfully we’re able to meet this demand. After a difficult year, with donations generally dwindling, in December things have picked up again.

We’re benefiting from numerous seasonal fundraising initiatives including raffles, street collections and our own Reverse Advent Calendar. Our inbox is full of generous offers from local companies and community groups with bright ideas and a willingness to give time and money to support us. Every single one of these contributions is greatly appreciated, especially given January 2024 looks set to be bleaker than ever.

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But as welcome and necessary as these contributions are, they come with a sense of unease. Supporting your local food bank has clearly made its way onto Christmas to do lists but does this kind but fleeting seasonal interest in food banks further institutionalise them as a response to poverty?

At least the initiatives from the local community are well-intentioned. Unease really sets in with the numerous corporate campaigns focused on food banks at Christmastime. Most supermarkets have a Christmas food bank campaign, encouraging shoppers to buy extra items. There are even point-of-purchase shelf stickers stating items are “perfect for your food bank”. The scale of supermarkets’ Christmas campaigns only accelerates the normalisation of food banks in our society.

There’s no doubt that donations from festive marketing will help food banks like ours. But money will also be building up supermarket profits too. What if supermarkets prioritised paying their own workers adequately, so they don’t need to turn to a food bank? Supermarket employees are regular attendees at food banks.

Giving to the poor at Christmastime is nothing new, it’s a long-established tradition in our society. But Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. We should be horrified that 180 years later, what we’re witnessing is ever more Dickensian. Children, pale, underweight and malnourished; parents visibly fading away as they prioritise feeding their children, some even driven to shoplifting; families sleeping on floors; a mother going out to the bins behind the supermarket night to find some food. We have seen all of this at our food bank this year. Other food banks report equally distressing scenarios from across the country. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported that 3.8 million people faced destitution or extreme poverty in 2022.

It’s been an awful, unrelenting year for people faced with poverty. But for many of our guests, the hardest time of year is now. Christmas has a particular way of reminding people with no money what they’re missing out on.

Guest Chrissie is in recovery after several decades of crack addiction. She has lost contact with her children and grandchildren, and will spend Christmas alone, but her most pressing concern today is the lack of heating and light in her flat. What does she want from Christmas “to get through it”. Nothing more.

Many people used a food bank for the first time ever in 2023. Newer guests talk of how the prospect of Christmas this year is especially difficult. Mother of three, Terry, says that trying to have a normal Christmas for the children will be the biggest challenge. That, and trying not to worry too much about what comes afterwards. Where are the signs that things will improve? Where’s the hope?

So, if you want to help local food banks this Christmas, don’t hesitate to donate as support is desperately needed. Food banks often prefer financial donations, allowing them to buy what’s needed and to distribute shopping vouchers enabling more dignity and choice for people.

But, please, combine your donation with activism. Write to your MP asking for real systemic change. The reality is that unless we collectively call for change, food banks will remain part of Christmas lexicon and Dickensian levels of poverty will become further entrenched.

The Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network which campaigns to end the need for charitable food aid through a cash first approach to food insecurity. You can find their template letter to MPs here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more

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