A Foodbank tale: Big Society or a Big Heartwarming Finger to the Tories?

I’m going to tell you a story that should put a big smile on your face. It just happened today, and for me at least it stirs the heart and ignites hope in human nature – as well as reinforcing my belief that David Cameron and his supporters could not be more out of touch with the majority of British people.

In spite of the Tories’ best efforts to divide us all against each other, and to ingrain their ‘greed is good’ mentality into the UK’s collective worldview, once people are aware, once they perceive clearly, many (most, I hope!) people stubbornly refuse to buy into that Big Lie and to harden their hearts against those in need or vulnerable.

But first, a little useful background.

Earlier this year, Middlesbrough was rated the 10th poorest place in England. The Channel 4 TV show has also rated the town as the worst place to live in the entire UK, based on crime levels, unemployment, education results and drug and health problems. I was born here and have lived here all my life, and I love the place. But if the residents of any town have a right to look out only for number 1 and to take a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude to life, it’s the people of Middlesbrough.

Life is tough here – and as a dyed-in-the-wool Labour heartland, it’s getting tougher. The Tories have nothing to lose by hammering Middlesbrough. We’ll never vote for them anyway. And it shows – one of the very earliest decisions by the new coalition government was to cancel a new-build hospital just to the north of the town, and Middlesbrough has been among the hardest-hit by just about every cut the government has made in its misguided austerity programme. Which has meant that the level of need in Middlesbrough has become even greater. Surely, people’s fists will close more tightly on what they do have?

There has been substantial mention in the news of late about the sharp rise in the number of Food Banks – facilities set up by charities to feed people who have lost benefits, or have lost jobs and have not been caught by our fraying social safety net. Staggeringly, the Tories have tried to claim Foodbanks as an example of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea.

Cameron infamously ‘welcomed‘ the work that Foodbank does, while Secretary of State for the Environment and Food Caroline Spelman described Foodbanks as ‘an excellent example’ of the Big Society in Action. The fact that the need for the meteoric rise in Foodbank numbers arises entirely from the Tories’ failed austerity policies and fundamental lack of economic nous seems not to register as even slightly ironic – although my experience is that Tories don’t really ‘do’ irony.

Our church is setting up a Foodbank in Middlesbrough, and I’m peripherally involved. Earlier today, I had a brief Twitter exchange with Labour MP Jamie Reed, who had tweeted that he’s never had a letter from a Christian about child poverty, but gets lots about homosexuality and abortion. I responded that I’m a Christian and had never tweeted or written about either of the latter, but almost exclusively about social justice, because for me being a Christian is inseparable from standing up for the vulnerable.

Jamie’s criticism might be justified to a degree, and to be fair to him he was quick to acknowledge my point graciously. But I think it’s worth highlighting that Christians have been in the forefront of the Foodbank phenomenon, through organisations like Trussell Trust, and with churches across the country taking a lead and setting up Foodbanks – which provide emergency provisions to people who find themselves in sudden and dire need.

Anyway, enough background and on to the heartwarming stuff. Today was Middlesbrough Foodbank’s first food collection. We had permission to collect in a new Tesco store in South Bank. one of the most deprived areas of Middlesbrough. You could be forgiven for thinking that it would be hard going.

The collection procedure is quite straightforward. Under a Foodbank banner at the front of the store, volunteers hand out a list to any customer willing to take one, while explaining the purpose of the collection. The list invites shoppers to buy any one of a list of long-life foods such as pasta, rice, canned sauces etc, and to leave it with the volunteers on the way out. The list is designed to provide, as far as possible, a balanced and durable diet, which is given out to those in need in portions sufficient to feed the family for at least 3 days.

So, how did the people of South Bank – one of the most needy areas in one of the poorest and supposedly the least desirable towns in the country – do? Take a look:


I was blown away when I saw this picture. Even more blown away when I heard some of the stories, because they illustrate something wonderful – and way beyond the ken of Cameron’s small-minded, cost-cutting ‘Big Society’ idea. Throughout the collection period, which lasted several hours, only 3 people were abusive, spouting the tragic, Tory-instilled jibes that the poor are all ‘druggies’ and ‘skivers’. Most others were glad to give, and almost none refused to take a list.

One of the highlights was a man who came in clutching a £10 note and a £1 coin, who had only come into the store to buy a lottery ticket with the £1. When he heard what the collection was for, he took a list, disappeared off into the shop – and returned with two carrier bags stuffed with food items. He had spent the whole of his £10 note to buy food for those less well off than himself.

Another came at the end of the day. The Tesco deputy manager filled a box with items for the collection, with the compliments of the store. As she approached the team, the store manager stopped her – and told her it wasn’t enough! He sent out a team of Tesco workers to fill several boxes, which they duly checked out of stock and placed in the collection.

When the team got back to the warehouse, there was another bonus. In Thirkleby, a very small, fairly wealthy village not far to the south of Middlesbrough, the people had heard about the new Foodbank in Middlesbrough. The residents talked among themselves and decided that it was only right that they, with their comfortable lives, should show concern for those less fortunate. At the centre of the village green stands a defunct phone box. This was nominated as the collection point, and before long it was full of long-life food, with more around it, all of which was added to the stockpile in the warehouse.

This is just the first ‘live’ day for Middlesbrough Foodbank, and what we know from others we’ve talked to is that it’s scary how fast the food collected can disappear, because the need is so great. But it’s a fantastically heartwarming and encouraging start, and other local supermarkets are confirming that we can collect in their stores, so we’re full of hope that we can do some good.

But what we’ve seen already also holds a lesson for Cameron and co. Their neoliberal worldview says that people only really care about themselves, and that the only way to harness human energy efficiently is to promote greed and self-interest. But that worldview has a fundamental flaw – those who hold it can’t imagine that anyone might think and act differently to them. In spite of their claim to want a ‘Big Society’, it’s just a dodge to allow them to cut spending, cut taxes, and get away with it more easily.

The reason that today’s collection was a Big Finger to the Tories, rather than an example of the ‘Big Society’, is that it shows just how skewed the ‘greed is good’ philosophy is. People are capable of good, of compassion, of empathy, of self-sacrifice for the good of others – and in spite of this government’s best efforts, most of us refuse to forget that there are many people in need, nor to stop caring. Despite crisis, hardship, austerity and a non-stop government propaganda campaign to divide the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’, and even the ‘have-nots’ from each other, ‘I’m alright Jack’ is still not the dominant ethos of most of us. Only of those who are currently running the UK (into the ground!).

And that just demonstrates how hopelessly defunct and out of touch the Tories and their hapless LibDem stooges are – and why they’ll be spat out. That’s what you do with something rotten.


  1. Heartwarming. not more than I wud expect from M.Just goes to show there are good Tories who will have reinvent their LABEL.Not to B seen as part of the Greed is Good campaign

  2. Charities are a good thing in themselves but often the fact that we have them and so many is a reflection of how poorly we do in governing ourselves. That we have sunk to the level that we need food banks is a poor show. There should never be such large holes in our welfare system. I don’t think it matters which party is in power at the time, it’s endemic in our society that these situations are acceptable.

  3. Heartwarming indeed – but it just struck me what was bugging me about the claim that this is a success for The Big Society. If this were bankers etc. cashing in some of their bonuses for charitable works then I might just go for that. But it’s not. It’s ordinary people, many of whom will not be so far from being in the same place as those they are helping. It’s wonderful this happened – but terrible that it needed to. And no-one in government has any place claiming one iota of credit.

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