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Empty plates: campaigners ask Christians to go hungry

20 February 2014

CHRISTIANS across the UK are being asked to go without food for one day in April to raise awareness of the growing problem of families going hungry.

The End Hunger Fast campaign, which will be launched officially on 5 March, is demanding that the Government take action to ensure that the welfare system protects the poor, that wages are enough to pay for food, and that people are put before profit in the food markets.

The Revd Keith Hebden, a spokesman for End Hunger Fast, said that he hoped thousands would join a fast on 4 April to highlight the fact that 500,000 people had to use foodbanks last year.

In a letter to the Daily Mirror, published on Thursday, more than 40 faith leaders announced their support for End Hunger Fast. Among the group were 24 Church of England bishops, as well as representatives from the Methodists, United Reformed Church, and Quakers.

The organisers also hope hundreds of individual congregations will get behind the movement's demands.

Mr Hebden, who is a parish priest in Mansfield, said: "It is great we are responding to this problem with foodbanks, but the problem should not be there. We are asking for a robust Welfare State that provides a good last line of defence, because we don't have that now."

He said that changes made to the benefits system by the coalition Government had pushed some people into food poverty.

A priest in Nottingham had told him that his local foodbank had surges of use every two weeks, coinciding with the need within the Department for Work and Pensions office to reach targets on the number of people they had sanctioned.

"You can see a direct correlation between this pressure to punish people for being out of work and the people queuing up for food."

End Hunger Fast says that 5500 people were admitted to hospital with malnutrition last year, almost double the figure in 2008 (3000).

Mr Hebden said that the problem was not just one faced by the unemployed. "A lot of the people at the foodbanks around us are in work. That's to do with low wages and zero-hours contracts. . . It might look like more people are being employed, but they are being underemployed."

The campaign is, therefore, also calling for employers to pay the Living Wage; but Mr Hebden admitted that, on their own, higher wages were not a solution to hunger.

The Office of National Statistics found last year that food prices had risen by 12.6 per cent above inflation in the past six years, while pay had largely stagnated.

Mr Hebden said that the End Hunger Fast campaign would also demand that those buying and selling food in the commodities markets would put "people before profit" rather than seek to make money on the back of hunger.

"We need to do something to bring food prices under control," he said. "We need to look at land use, the way food is distributed, and the way farmers are treated."

In Birmingham, St Philip's Cathedral will host a garden shed - christened the Hunger Hut - to engage passers-by in the campaign. During Lent, prayers, pledges of support, and stories of hunger will be tied to the cathedral's railings.


Foodbank report A new report for the Government has concluded that people are being driven to use foodbanks by job losses and problems getting benefits.

The report Household Food Security in the UK, published on Thursday, states that the "current economic and policy context" is causing rising numbers of families to cope with drastic changes in their circumstances that affect their ability to buy food.

Publication of the report, which was written by a group of academics from the University of Warwick, had been delayed for several months, and there was speculation that it would criticise the Government's austerity programme.

The researchers write that the organisations who run foodbanks say that a combination of unemployment, benefits sanctions, low wages, and increasing debt are the factors that are pushing people into receiving food aid. The report also says that turning to foodbanks is largely a last resort.

Research by the Citizens Advice service, quoted in the report, found that the two most common reasons for using a foodbank were delays in payments of benefits, and benefits sanctions.

The report suggests, however, that the growing number of people using foodbanks is not good evidence of problems with the Welfare State.

The authors of the report recommend that the Government focuses on "the root causes of [food] insecurity rather than on numbers claiming food aid". They also argue that even long-term use of foodbanks does not address the underlying problems that prevent households from having enough food.

One of the main charities in the sector, the Trussell Trust, has expanded its foodbank network from two outlets in 2004 to 345 today. The other groups involved are also dealing with a steady increase in demand for food aid, the report says.

But many of the churches that now host a Trussell Trust foodbank had previously offered some form of "ad hoc food provision", the report suggests.

Last December, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith refused to meet representatives from the Trussell Trust. The Observer reported that Mr Duncan Smith had written a letter accusing the trust in a letter of "scaremongering" by suggesting that changes to the benefits system were forcing people into food poverty.

The Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, speaking in the House of Lords last summer, said that the reason why more people were using foodbanks was that "there is an almost infinite demand for a free good". He denied that there was any causal link between delays in paying benefits, and the huge growth in the number of families relying on foodbanks.

The report was published on the same day that 27 bishops signed a letter sent to the Daily Mirror, saying that the Government's changes to the welfare system were forcing thousands of people into food poverty.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said on Thursday that he agreed with the criticism, and was "entirely with" the bishops on this issue.

The bishops also backed the campaign End Hunger Fast, which is urging Christians to fast during Lent to raise awareness of those who cannot afford to eat.

The bishops' intervention came days after the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Rt Revd Vincent Nichols, described the Government's welfare-reform programme as a "disgrace.

The Prime Minister has responded by saying that his reforms are a "moral mission", and that they were necessary to reduce dependency on handouts.

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