Opinion

King Charles III gives us food for thought on poverty

The King's new project aims to make food waste a thing of a past. Next, we need to turn off the tap that produces people born into poverty

King Charles, John Bird and vendor Kelvin Gregory

King Charles, John Bird and vendor Kelvin Gregory

A tremendous amount of energy goes into trying to get food into the mouths of the poorest. I witnessed it last week when King Charles launched his Coronation Food Project at a South Oxford programme called SOFEA, which has grown out of its Oxford beginnings to other parts of the Home Counties.  

There gathered to meet the King Charles were dozens of volunteers, users of the services, supermarket chiefs and food providers. All wishing to stem the colossal waste which has befallen food production and distribution. To streamline and promote efficiency to ensure that what is made and what is edible is eaten; and eaten in sufficient amounts by those that are unable to afford food.  

So food waste will, hopefully, become a thing of the past, spurred on by the increasing need of people hit by inflation and the large amounts of food that are thrown away. Throughout the land there is an energy to ensure that food gets to those who need it most. And that food consumption is not simply for those who have the money. 

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There is a vast network of provision for people caught in the emergency of hunger, and the Coronation Food Project will hopefully ensure the provision of more food. The need for emergency food increases as a result of the soaring cost of living thrown up by political ineptness, volatile markets, war and the government’s inability to use the social pounds our taxpayers provide to morph people away from poverty. 

I was with Kelvin, a Big Issue vendor there to sell a copy to King Charles, with Charles’s birthday photo on the cover and a matching story. I was also there hopefully to stress to the King that if we wish to end food poverty, we seriously need to turn off the tap that produces people born into poverty. 

Energy and devotion to food relief filled the large room of devotees of ‘social justice through food justice’, as some have come to call it. All went well, with Kelvin selling and getting a tenner off the King; and I got to give King Charles a copy of my minuscule manifesto calling for a Ministry of Poverty Prevention. And was pleased to hear the King say that prevention is the big deal. 

What is interesting about SOFEA is that though they started with food poverty they have since got into education and skills enhancement, helping move people away from needing to be given food. I warmed to their work because of The Big Issue’s commitment to help ‘turn off the tap’ that leads to poverty and the need for free food.  

I can’t get over this passion to work on the emergency of poverty, yet there are no big guns fighting for its prevention. What if we could create a groundswell of opposition to allowing people to slip into poverty or being born into a poverty they inherit as their birthright? 

Humanity proves most useful in times of emergency but is feeble at creating social systems that ensure people never again need to rely on being given food. We are ‘emergency obsessed’ because the emergency is there in front of us, there to witness. So we jump and run and struggle and commit to ending that immediate need. Unable, it would seem, to develop the cleverness that would prevent that need arising. 

Last week I also found out that I did not get into the ballot of 25 Private Members’ Bills in the House of Lords. As it’s a ballot and not decided by priority, or interest, or significance, I knew there was a risk of not getting the chance to debate “Do we need a new ministry that would bring together all of the various parts of government work around poverty that are currently scattered and uncoordinated throughout government? Do we not need a Ministry of Poverty Prevention that would unite all efforts, would work tirelessly to stop the consequences of poverty being radiated out into the lives of those born into it, which ensures they are always out of step with their true potential?” 

All, though, is not lost. We are going to build a simulated Ministry of Poverty Prevention outside of parliament. We are going to gather from the four corners of the Earth all of those wonderful projects that have turned poverty on its head and liberated people from need. 

We are also going to have to look at the word ‘poverty’ itself. Poverty of body has also to include poverty of spirit. For is there not also the poverty of ‘wellbeing’? How many young people are there who cry out for help because of the lasting effects of Covid? Because of the lack of sociability that an increasing amount of people feel.

The increase of loneliness that, according to studies, causes the equivalent damage of smoking 11 cigarettes a day. The poverty of purpose and social association need equally to be addressed as we look at physical and material poverty. 

Interestingly Kelvin, our seller outside Somerset House in London’s West End, reminded me that the Big Issue has created a kind of extended family for people who have suffered from feeling lost in the modern world. And he believes that all of the people who buy from him are also touched by a feeling of belonging. 

Wow! Poverty of mind and body and spirit sounds a worthy dragon to slay.

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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