Tackling Poverty – Foodshare, Community and Spirituality

This is the script (modified slightly) of a talk I was asked to give to the MA students in the School of Social Work at the University of Leicester, in November 2013. Like the other essays and stories I’ve posted, it is intended as a discussion starter – what if any of it chimes with your experience?

My thanks to Janet Couloute, lecturer to the MA course, who heard of what we were doing in Braunstone and invited me to give the talk.

The paper is in four sections. They are –

  1. What’s it like to live in poverty?
  2. A brief history of Braunstone
  3. How Braunstone Foodshare works
  4. Values and spirituality


1. What’s it like to live in poverty?

I’ve been a church minister for 39 years, and served all but 7 years in Urban Priority Areas – inner city or outer council estates with multiple deprivation. While I was vicar in inner city Leeds I did an M.Phil research degree (1990-95) on “Spirituality in the Inner City”, based on 26 in-depth interviews with parishioners. Some of them (though not all) talked to me about their experience of poverty. The quotes that follow are from those interviews. They illustrate different aspects of poverty – financial, social and spiritual.
Yvonne was a young single mother, bringing up two young children on benefits. She said: “I suppose we all tend to feel as though we’re like the lower end of society – not the dregs – but you do feel as though you’re not important. But nobody really is all that bothered about the fact that you’re in a rotten rough estate, and that none of you have any money, and that your houses are in bad condition, and that your schools are bad, well, nobody cares, so then you think, ‘Well, why should we?’” Yvonne was alternating between a feisty “up yours” outlook and despair, propping up her shaky morale with more alcohol than was good for her. But she enjoyed the interview and was energised by it to start volunteering at the local Advice Centre run by our church. From there she got a full-time job – a happy ending to the bit of her story I know.
That also happened with Andrea, another young mother I interviewed, who told a long and lurid story of her abuse by her father (it took three hours over two visits). She said at the end, “I’ve never told my whole story before to anyone outside the family. It feels like I’ve got it out of the house.” A year later she was engaging in community action with other local young women who’d missed out on their education – they got to make a presentation to “Business in the Community”, in front of the Prince of Wales.
Simon, a young man in his 20s, was introduced to me as someone whose life had been transformed. But having come out of prison, he was bored, a prisoner in his own home. “Yes. There’s nowt to do. It’s the same thing for me, day in, day out… Whatever I’ve done yesterday I’m going to do today. Whatever I did last week, I’m going to do tomorrow. It’s the same for me every week.” Simon didn’t get an education – with that and his prison record, he didn’t think he’d ever get a job, though he was actively looking.
Greta was a middle-aged member of my congregation. She started coming to church after a suicide attempt, when I visited her in hospital. After years of being assaulted and sexually abused, she told me her best friends were gay people who didn’t threaten her. She had been reduced at one time to working as a prostitute in order to feed her family. She tells a story about the Housing Manager, whom she’d asked to do something about her damp window-frames. “The Housing Manager came round to see my moss green window frames. He tapped my walls and said, ‘Well, your walls are sturdy!’ And I said, ‘I hope so, because there’s seven blocks of flats above me.’ Your walls! So… he looked at the moss green, but he tapped the walls and he said, ‘Your walls are firm, now your window frames might be moss green and ready for falling out, but by! have you firm walls!’ It’s all a load of waffle…”
Jenny’s four children were taken into care while they were at a church event. Four police and two social workers interrupted the proceedings, and I confess I was reduced to tears of rage and helplessness. Jenny had been a victim since childhood of persistent sexual abuse, and was judged incapable of protecting her boys from the same abuse, from some of the same men. The church gave support above and beyond the call of duty – even at times, beyond the call of prudence. Twenty years later the boys, now grown up, are back in touch with their mother, and Jenny herself has come such a long way that she has recently been ordained. But the level of care and support she received could never be expected – indeed, it was severely criticised at the time.
Susan, who became a close friend, talked several times to me about what it was like to live in a poor area. She had a neat turn of phrase – “When you’re poor, you’re robbed of choice.” Who makes the most important decisions that affect Susan’s life? Housing Managers, the Department of Health and Social Security (now DWP), Social Services… All of them live outside the area, none of them know what it’s like to be in Susan’s shoes. She contrasts life in 1992 with life in the financially worse off communities of her childhood, when families all lived in the same street and everyone would help out when someone was in need. “Oh, I’ve got this ginormous pot of stew – would anyone like to have some with me?” One change from the “good old days” to the present is that then there was hope. Now, often, there is none.
People who live in areas like that one in Leeds, or Braunstone in Leicester, tend to be relatively powerless. They perceive those in authority as having power over them – “them up there”. Of course, from the perspective of a Housing Manager or Social Worker, life can feel just as powerless, one’s available choices just as limited. On the other hand, my feelings of powerlessness as a worker trying to do the right thing for a client (or parishioner) are nothing compared with the feelings of powerlessness experienced by someone whose major life direction is being determined by officials she doesn’t even know.
Indeed, when you’re poor, you’re robbed of choice, and too often robbed of hope as well. And that can lead on the inside to low confidence and self-esteem, thence self-defeating behaviour (you know the scenario – “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”), spending money as soon as you get it, indulging in expensive habits and getting into debt because it brings a little excitement into your life.
And from the outside you might well feel patronised by everyone with power, from the Government to the Media, to local housing managers, the DWP, teachers, doctors – dare I say social workers and the church…? All that isn’t financial poverty, though it goes hand-in-hand with it. But it is a deep poverty of hope, of opportunity, of the stuff that makes life worth living. And if you’re in that situation, you’re often made to feel it’s your fault.
One definition of poverty is the level of what used to be called Income Support, which was fixed as the minimum a person or family could live on. That level has now been cut, so we as a society are colluding with the statutory imposition of poverty below the breadline. The government seem to think that food banks are a positive sign of the Big Society. I think they are an indictment of the society that makes them necessary. And do we really want to go back to the days of Poor Law, of Workhouses and Parish Relief, when the vicar (God help me!) was one of those powerful people that decided who were the Deserving Poor and who were the undeserving??

Return to top

2. A brief history of Braunstone

The Braunstone Estate was built in the 1930s by Leicester Corporation as “homes fit for heroes”, to house those who’d come back from the 1st World War to the slum areas in the centre of Leicester. They had used compulsory purchase to buy the estate, along with its stately home, from the Winstanley family, who had been Lords of the Manor of Braunstone since 1650. The houses are solid brick built family homes, with their own gardens, wide streets and lots of green space. And Braunstone Park still sits in the middle of the estate, the lungs of Braunstone, surrounding the now derelict Braunstone Hall at the top of the hill.
Braunstone thrived for many years – it’s a stable community, with many families still living there from the 1930s, some in 3 or 4 generations. But gradually the estate began to suffer from the vicious circles of multiple deprivation. In terms of child poverty, in 2001 it was the 25th poorest area in the country. In terms of education, it was the 9th poorest in the country.
Braunstone got a reputation for being self-contained and hostile to strangers – the sort of place that police went into in 2s. There was rivalry between the two halves of the estate, known as “Dodge City” and “Texas”. When I arrived in 2002, there were regular incidents of car theft and destruction, with burnt out cars often turning up in front of the church. It was not seen as a desirable place to live, so potential council tenants would put it low on their list, while Braunstone residents would be applying for a move out of the area. One part of the estate, the “Six Streets”, was almost entirely boarded up, and the Council were going to demolish the lot.
Into that story came the New Deal for Communities, a programme by the Labour Government after the 1997 election to invest around £50 million into an area of about 5,000 houses, to regenerate the physical fabric and social networks of an estate, and at the same time to empower local residents by giving them the power to decide where and how the money was to be spent. Braunstone was awarded one of the New Deal grants, and the programme started in 2000. Almost at once it became clear that the empowerment side hadn’t been thought through: no training was provided to the local residents who were elected to the board, and there was a complete mismatch of culture between the local way of doing things and the government bureaucracy that insisted things be done properly!
In addition, there was conflict over the direction of the programme, between those who thought it should major on economic growth (job creation etc) and those who favoured a more social regeneration strategy. The first AGM I attended as vicar in December 2002, there were 40 people at the back with placards, protesting at the smallest issue, even the minutes of the last meeting and re-appointing the auditors – the meeting went on for an hour and a half, after which we were expected to lead some carol singing! I felt at the time it was like “bolt-on peace and goodwill” – though it did have an effect on the atmosphere of future meetings.
The government body, East Midlands Development Agency, were about to pull the plug on the whole thing, until the Bishop intervened and the Archdeacon (one of the Bishop’s senior staff) stepped up to become Independent Chair of the Braunstone Community Association. From then on, amid a flurry of hate mail from the opposition, he helped the local volunteers see through a programme that gave Braunstone its Leisure Centre, a library and community centre, a business start-up centre and a new health centre – also the refurbishing of the “Six Streets” by a housing association, and the repair of many other houses.
The social fabric was attended to through a crime reduction and security project – the fear of crime is now greatly reduced (as well as crime figures themselves) and an education task group brought in some innovative ideas that have seen a spectacular improvement in GCSE results over 10 years. From a queue to move out of the estate, there is a now a queue to get in. The community is stronger and more confident, and the Braunstone Foundation, successor to the Community Association, is still flourishing.
So it’s rather galling that we now have to be thinking about food poverty, something that we’ve long thought of only in connection with the 3rd world. The clouds began to gather after the banking crash of 2008, and it’s systematically, and in my opinion deliberately, been made worse by the present government’s so-called Welfare Reforms. Braunstone, with its many well-built 3-bedroom family homes, is being particularly hard hit by the Bedroom Tax. I’ve had the local Housing Manager sitting in my kitchen, in despair at the measures she’s going to be forced to take, in order to implement these reforms.

Return to top

3. How Braunstone Foodshare works

By the end of 2013, St Peter’s Braunstone had been host for nearly two years to Braunstone Foodshare. We had been wondering, back in summer 2011, whether food poverty was about to hit Braunstone – then, just before that Christmas, I was asked by three households if I could find them some food to tide them over the holiday period. I went to Fareshare, a national food redistribution project, and asked for some food. They replied, “Yes, but are you going to join up on a regular basis?” And that’s how Braunstone Foodshare started.
Now, we’re not a food bank. We don’t store food at St Peter’s Church (though some food is stored at the Neighbourhood Support Centre) and we don’t restrict people’s access to food, except a very basic limit of one bag per household per fortnight. You can’t turn up any time to receive a bag of food: we open at specific times. And we’re run entirely by volunteers, though the staff of Neighbourhood Support do help.
Supposing you’ve discovered that your money doesn’t last as long as your month – your larder is empty and your children are hungry. You hear about Braunstone Foodshare and turn up one Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. You wonder, “Will I be made to feel a failure? Will they ask questions about my income or benefits? Do I have to come cap in hand like a beggar?” There’s some good-natured banter in the queue before you get in – then at opening time there’s a determined move for the door. The volunteers inside ask you, as a new member, to fill in a form. So you go over to a table and another volunteer helps you fill in a simple form, giving your name, address and phone number, the name of anyone you wish to authorise to collect your food bag if you can’t come yourself, and your ethnicity. Nothing about your job, income or benefits. Some families in work are facing food poverty – they are so low paid that they need to come to Braunstone Foodshare.
As soon as that’s done, you go back to the reception table and hand in the form. You’re given a token which you take over to the tables on the other side of the hall. There, another volunteer takes your token and hands you a plastic carrier bag full of food. Most people leave at that point, but you’re invited to stay for a cup of tea and a cake. You see that some people are already doing that – there’s quite a lively chat going on, and one or two seem to be greeting each other like long-lost friends. “How long have you been coming here?” “I haven’t seen you since we were at school together.” In that way, we try to make Foodshare a community event, not a mere handout. Next time you come, you’ll be given your membership card, which you then bring along each time.
Behind that experience lies a huge amount of volunteer work. Foodshare is run not by the vicar but by a steering group (soon to become a management committee) of local residents, with one representative from each of the venues where Foodshare is distributed. One week it’s at St Peter’s (Monday early evening and Tuesday morning) – the other week it’s the other side of the park, at the United Reformed Church on Monday evening and the Brite Centre on Tuesday morning.
We used to get all our food from FareShare, but as they have expanded and the demands on them have increased, the food they provide has become a bit erratic and sometimes quite inadequate, so we are now looking elsewhere, mainly to local supermarkets. FareShare themselves have arrangements with supermarkets and food wholesalers: they collect unwanted food that would otherwise go to landfill, and store it in their warehouse a few miles from Leicester. (There’s an environmental aspect to their work, as well as the relief of poverty.) They organise the food on to pallets and then deliver it – we never know quite when it will arrive, so Austin the churchwarden has to stand by from Monday lunchtime to open up the church. While he’s waiting he gets out all the tables we need, and puts them in place.
The food is brought into the church hall in trays and boxes, and unloaded on to the tables. Ron the co-ordinator goes in his ancient Land Rover to Sainsbury’s or Asda or Aldi, to ask if they have any unwanted food. Some supermarkets are now operating a food-drop, inviting customers to buy one extra and donate it into a large bin. The other week I was invited to talk about Harvest to a local pre-school nursery. I don’t often get the chance to engage with a load of 3-year-olds, and I quite enjoyed it. The next week two of them turned up (with their mothers who happened to be staff members) and donated their harvest collection to us, tastefully arranged in baskets and boxes! So that’s how we get the food in. Ron takes away the waste, but Austin is the one who separates it into recycling bags – orange – and rubbish bags – black.
Once that’s done, an army of volunteers fill the bags. As the filled bags accumulate and the food levels go down, Ron watches anxiously to see if we’ve got enough. Altogether we have 25 volunteers, of whom about 12 will be there at any one time. And that’s just our side of the park. 30 bags are set aside for the Tuesday morning distribution – they go into the church which is cooler, and on tables, so the small furry creatures can’t reach them! Then the worst of the mess is swept up from the floor and tables, we all have a cup of tea, and one or two volunteers who take food bags to housebound members collect their bags first. The vicar often goes out to chat to the growing queue of members, until at 5 o’clock everyone’s ready and the doors are opened.
Postscript – this is a snapshot from 2013. There were regular rows between volunteers, and I don’t know in 2016 whether Braunstone Foodshare is still going, or whether it has imploded.

Return to top

4. Values and Spirituality

We all need to be aware of our values, especially those we don’t discuss, or would rather not own up to. Otherwise they will impose on our work without our realising it, and distort it. My own values are informed by my Christian faith – but also by my relatively privileged upbringing. I have never personally known what it’s like to face poverty. My mother and wife both trained and qualified as social workers, so I’ve always been aware of that dimension to life. I don’t keep myself aloof from those I live and work with – I have made some good friends from parishioners both in Leeds and in Braunstone – but I can’t help being aware that my tastes, my aspirations and my life experience are very different from theirs.
Christianity has had a long history of working to help the poor, although sometimes the church has had a rather patronising attitude to those in poverty. Christians are still disproportionately represented in the caring professions in this country. It will be interesting to see if, in time, other faith groups become as strongly represented.
Someone said once, in a talk I heard, that her mother had criticised her for being “common”. She took that as a compliment. If we think of other people as “common”, we are almost bound to look down on them. Conversely, if we are comfortable with being common ourselves, we are more likely to find common ground with our fellow humans. To get into Christian theology for a minute, I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, made himself common with humanity. He didn’t look down on us, but instead became one of us. But whether or not you take the theology, the value of respect, of empathy, of common humanity, is I think a bottom line value for anyone going into social work, community development, church work or even food sharing. (Perhaps especially food sharing, because of its unfortunate history of patronising the poor.)
Let’s put it another way. When I was a young curate (or apprentice vicar) the usual advice from experienced vicars was not to make friendships within the parish – to keep a reserved distance. Fortunately, however, my own training vicar had based his entire ministry on friendship, so I felt confident to ignore that advice! I guess social workers are given the same advice – don’t get too close, don’t get emotionally involved. That may be right up to a point: you can’t make lasting friendships with people whose children you may have to take into care – but I would ask you how much of your humanity you lock away if you never share your emotions or your vulnerability with those you work with. To put it bluntly, if some of your cases don’t lead you to tears, then, sorry, there’s something wrong with you!
We all need a constructive way to deal with our emotions, whether we take them to our life partner, or to the place of prayer, or even to the staff meeting. We are going into “caring professions”, aren’t we? – whether vicar or social worker, or something else in that field – and in the last analysis, our shared humanity is the best we have to offer. Take that away and we become mere functionaries, bureaucrats who apply external rules and regulations without consideration for those who are often powerless already, and can become our victims, not those we help. And this is a real danger: I’m afraid many social workers out there are regarded by many of their clients as oppressors, not supporters.
Earlier on I mentioned hope. How can we offer hope to those who have none? My interviewees Yvonne and Andrea received hope simply by being listened to in depth, without being judged or criticised. But we mustn’t underestimate the depth of hopelessness, of despair, that many people feel who are trapped in poverty.
A few thoughts about spirituality. My research project was about this, and it led me, not exactly to a new definition of spirituality, but to a new way to think about it. Human spirit, I argued, is expressed by two contrasting aspects of our humanity: belonging and individuality. We’re not isolated individuals like billiard balls – we exist as we relate to each other. I am who I am because my parents and other people I relate to have made me that way. But that doesn’t completely describe me – I am also an individual and I’ve made many individual decisions over my life. We’re not like billiard balls, but neither are we like mashed potatoes: we are each unique individuals. These two aspects are built up over time – and time (with its companion concept story) is my third aspect of spirituality. So in my interviews I was looking for qualities of belonging, time/story and character, the individuality that builds up over time as our personhood is shaped by our relationships, our decisions and our stories. This model is not religious (as you will have noticed), but it is derived from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – the outrageous notion that there is relationship, and even community, within the nature of God. And using those concepts yielded some very interesting insights into those people I interviewed and the communities they belonged to.
And so I pray for my parishioners – well, you could say I’m paid to do that. My wife, who now works for the Citizens Advice Bureau, comes home with some heartrending stories: she shares them with me over the supper table (without revealing names or breaking confidentiality) and I know she also prays for those people, although she doesn’t of course preach at them. Being in a caring profession engages us at our deepest level: intellectual, emotional and spiritual. And that includes those who have no faith: one of my good friends and close colleagues in my last post was a senior officer in the City Council, whose compassion and commitment put many religious people to shame, but who had no religious faith himself.
Each of us must ask the question for ourselves – what does spirituality mean to me? How deep am I prepared to dig in my engagement with the people I work with, and how will I get help for myself to cope with the demands and challenges that such work presents?
And finally, here’s another question – most of us go into the caring professions out of a sense of altruism, even of vocation. How can we stay true to that vocation, and resist the strong pressure to conform to a model of bureaucracy that leaves out human caring and empathy?
© 2013 Chris Burch

Return to top

Leave a Comment