Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Charity versus social justice

Why food banks have failed, and why we need them more than ever.

Jolyon White  |  27 Sep 2013

In 1968 New Zealand signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Among other things that covenant enshrined an ‘adequate standard of living,’ including adequate housing and food, as a basic human right. That same year Walter Nash, the 27th prime minister of New Zealand died.

Those events had nothing to do with each other; nevertheless, Aunty Google and the benefit of a decent stretch of history allows us to play join the dots and make interesting pictures.

Walter Nash famously said: “I don’t want to get rid of poverty just to ensure that prosperity is maintained; I want to get rid of poverty because it is bad, it is wrong, it is immoral, it is unethical, it is un-Christian, it is unfair, and it is unjust…

“I mean involuntary poverty – where a person is told that his hands are not wanted, and that his wife and his youngsters will be deprived of the necessary things for health."

Government ratified the 1968 covenant in 1978 acknowledging acceptance that providing for an adequate supply of food for all their citizens was a human rights necessity. A handful of years later New Zealand embarked upon sweeping economic reforms and New Zealand saw the rise of a new phenomenon – the food bank (along with much of the developed world).

The church had been involved in food charity before that – soup kitchens, meals for the infirm or bereaved – but there is different assumption behind those services. 

A prepared meal assumes someone is unable to look after themselves. A food bank assumes that someone has a home to live in, a stove to cook on, and a pantry to store food in – but pantry shelves that stood empty. They were supposed to be a short-term stop-gap measure while economic reforms brought prosperity to the nation.

Meanwhile, back at the United Nations…

The senior UN official responsible for ensuring government compliance with signed covenants, Oliver de Shutter, warned governments that reliance on food banks to provide adequate food was a violation of the covenant, and therefore of human rights.

I’ll put that in its own paragraph to make it stand out. A government that accepts charitable food banks as the means to provide adequate food is guilty of human rights abuse.

Perhaps it would be a short-term necessity? In 1991, a decade into the reforms, a budget was passed that is infamously referred to as the mother of all budgets. Welfare spending was slashed.

In the following year and a half, food bank usage quadrupled. A 1993 food bank conference placed the total value of food parcels at 21 million dollars.

Food banks are now cemented into the landscape, and seem to be a policy choice rather than a backstop. New Zealand has one charity for every 172 kiwis.

In part that speaks of a generous nation. But charity does not address the problem. As was noted by someone pithy and notable, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

The cementing of food banks into the landscape is justice withheld. They exist because of a created poverty, not out of scarcity. The economic reforms of the 80s were supposed to dig the country out of financial doldrums and bring prosperity. And the reforms worked… for some.

Over the past 30 years the top 10% of income earners have increased their annual income after tax by about 80%, middle-income earners by 20%, but the lowest income earners barely changed.

When increased cost of things like housing, food, power, and transport are considered, bottom income earners have at times gone backwards. In 2010 seventeen people took home salaries over $1 million, while 150 children died of poverty related illness.

A cruel new twist

Food banks are not about scarcity. And there is now a cruel new twist on the words of Walter Nash. It is no longer that someone is in poverty because the work of their hands “is not wanted.” With the rise of in work poverty and poverty wages, the work of your hands is wanted, but still you cannot adequately look after the health of your family.

Remember when you did that dodgy repair on the pantry shelf by propping under a broom-handle, or fixed the leak in the roof with a bucket, or darned your underpants with duct-tape; and then the existence of that broom-handle, bucket, or tape meant you never got around to actually fixing it? That’s a food bank.

We may need food banks more than ever, but like duct-tape on your underpants we should never become comfortable with their existence. They are only ever a litmus test that something is not right in the communities, and countries, in which they exist.

We must never be silent about continuing the challenge of Oliver de Shutter,’ and name that for a government to rely on food banks to provide adequate food makes that government guilty of human rights abuse.

Although there are positive moves with a living wage and a growing discontent with inequality, the church collectively has been great at providing charity, but not so good at proclaiming, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

The Rev Jolyon White is the social justice enabler for the diocese of Christchurch.