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From Welfare to Private Charities

The Politics of Food Banks

by MICHAEL BARKER

Eating has always been an intensely political issue: those with money eat, those without starve. With food in abundance, the only thing stopping its fair distribution is the profit motive. This explanation not only helps us understand the regularity of famines, but likewise explains the daily suffering caused by inadequate nutrition amongst the poor, be they in rich, or impoverished societies. [1]

It is hardly a new phenomena that global food supplies are largely controlled by a just handful of global corporations; although with ongoing mergers this number are continually concentrating their power to enhance their ability to regulate our diets. These same corporations are usually at the forefront of anti-union activism, and dedicate themselves to ensuring that their workers’ pay and conditions are as low as possible to maximise their shareholders profits.

Nevertheless as the self-appointed guardians of most of the world’s food, it is simply not good press if these elites are seen to idly stand by as the working class starve. So when large proportions of people are forced into the dire position that they cannot afford to eat, the big-hearted capitalists of the food industry see it as their obligation (to sustain capitalism) to step forward to lend a hand. This magnanimous benefaction comes in the form of charity; although in many business leaders minds, such actions are seamlessly enmeshed with the generously funded endeavours of their corporate public relations departments.

With both the Labour Party and the Tories in agreement that the glory days of the welfare state are over, we are now told that if you are poor you must beg for assistance; and then if you are lucky you might be directed towards a local Food Bank. But people don’t need hand-outs from those better off than themselves, instead they need a government that has the will to enforce a redistributive system of taxation, and that supports, not undermines, attempts to fight for better pay and conditions in the workplace.

Largely administered by the resurgent charitable sector — as part of the Tory wet-dream that is the “Big Society” — such Food Bank’s are totally inadequate to task, and are reminiscent of the disgusting welfare provision that existed in the19th Century. Much as in the days of old, faith groups of all sorts are rising to the task to tend to the needy, such that the largest network of food banks in the UK, is provided by a Christian charity known as the Trussell Trust. (For useful background on this Trust, see “The well-trousered philanthropists: Tory party chums and food parcels for the poor.”)

Until recently the chairman of the Trussell Trust was Noel Atkins, a Tory Councillor and former Mayor of Worthing. A man who in 2009, chose as his first official engagement as Worthing’s ceremonial head to crowd-surf across a 14,000-strong crowd of sweaty Christians at the inaugural “Big Church Day Out” music festival. Such evangelizing however is nothing new for Atkins as he formerly served as a board member of Christian Publicity Ltd (now know as Christian Publishing and Outreach); and as Mayor canvassed his electorate with religious propaganda co-published by the Deo Gloria Trust and Biblica — the latter Christian outlet at that time being headed by Keith Vardy, the evangelist who just last year was appointed head of the controversial Sir Peter Vardy Foundation.

Considering the efforts of the British ruling class to destroy the hard won gains made by the working-class throughout the 20th Century, it is appropriate that the chairman of the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, is a partner of something known as the Shaftesbury Partnership: a Partnership founded by Lord Nat Wei in 2006, “taking as inspiration the work and legacy of the great 19th Century Social Reformer, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury,” with one of their first commissions being “to support social action ministries of churches in deprived areas.” It is no coincidence that Lord Wei was the man who worked with the Conservative Party in developing the means to implement the “Big Society.”

Another charity set-up to replace democratic forms of welfare provision is FareShare, which “supplies millions of free meals to charities, food banks and breakfast clubs using food donated by supermarkets,” who according to an uncritical report in The Guardian  said “it could not keep pace with demand, which it expected to continue growing for at least five years.” To be sure, this charity is very much a creature of the very corporations profiting from and driving the current food crisis. With regard their 2012 budget of just under £1.6 million; £0.3 million came from corporate philanthropies, with £1.1 million coming directly from corporations… just £0.02 million came from individual contributions and legacies.

Last year Julian Hunt retired from FareShare’s board of trustees, a position he happen to hold while serving as the director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation. Moreover, during his last year at FareShare Hunt was acting in his current job as the vice president of public affairs and communications GB at Coca-Cola. Such corporate connections no doubt enhance the ability of FareShare to serve its charitable ends, and so in the same vein it is useful that the vice chair of their trustees is John Bason, the finance director of Associated British Foods plc. [2]

Here it is important to recognize that Associated British Foods’ very own philanthropy, the Garfield Weston Foundation, is a major contributor to FareShare’s work. The foundation having been set up to commemorate the death of the founder of the Associated British Foods. Not content to just feed the poor, the Garfield Weston Foundation funds all manner of good causes including not least boosting the coffers of leading Tory think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and Politeia.

Food Banks are not the solution for widespread hunger, but are just the ruling classes favoured solution to the ongoing decimation of state-organized social welfare provision. So here it is useful to turn briefly to the United States to examine their use in a country whose poor are in many respects already well and truly back in the 19th Century (think prisons and unaffordable healthcare). There, unlike in the UK, leading members of the military-industrial complex have joined the Food Bank craze. For instance, the Capital Area Food Bank [3] which feeds the poor in the Washington metro area, counts one John Hynes on their well-endowed board room of elites. Hynes being a former intelligence analyst at the Navy Operational Intelligence Center, and chief operating officer of defence contractor, TASC — a CIA-hang-out that was spun off from Northrop Grumman in 2009.

Or take the CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank, Nancy Roman, a former vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Such a past at one of America’s leading ruling class think-tanks might explain why in late March 2013 Roman invited imperialist power-broker and Council on Foreign Relations board member, Peter Ackerman, to become the latest addition to her Food Bank’s board room. Of Ackerman, Roman observed: “I have known and worked with him over the years and can attest to his philanthropic commitment.” Here she may be referring to Ackerman’s philanthropic efforts to promote US counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these are not Ackerman’s only useful credentials for the Capital Area Food Bank, as he, like many of his corporate cronies reaps massive profits from food as well. This is because Ackerman is the founding investor of FreshDirect, the largest online grocer in the United States — a company which includes the CEO of Wm Morrison Supermarkets (Dalton Phillips) upon their prestigious board of directors.

Bringing this article full circle, Dalton Phillips — the individual who joined Morrison’s as their CEO in 2010 and currently works with Ackerman — had come to this position directly from acting as the chief operating officer of Loblaw Companies Limited, which is Canada’s “largest food distributor and a leading provider of general merchandise, pharmacy and financial products and services.” No surprise here, but it is intriguing that Phillips’ work at Loblaw’s marked the pinnacle his long career serving the interests of the Weston families global retail empire: with the current chairman of Loblaw being Galen Weston, Jr., — the son of Loblaw’s former chairman W. Galen Weston — who in turn is now the chairman of Loblaw’s parent company, George Weston Limited.

One well-connected board member at George Weston Limited is a man called J. Robert Prichard, who is a board member of private equity giant Onex, where he serves alongside their former CEO/predatory mining magnate Peter Godsoe. This bridge between the Weston food empire (which so kindly supports FareShare’s food banks here in the UK) and the mining industry provides a neat demonstration of the intimate relationship between charity and extreme exploitation. Extreme because Godsoe is a former board member of the blood-soaked Lonmin mining enterprise, and a former board member of another notoriously murderous mining business, Barrick Gold Corporation.

One might add that another current Onex senior managing partner is none other than current Barrick Gold board member Anthony Munk. Such ominous connections however are no coincidence as the current CEO of Barrick Gold, Jamie Sokalsky — who first joined Barrick as their treasurer in 1993 — had previously spent tens years as a senior executive at George Weston Limited. [4] Murderers are oh so tender in their charitable pursuits.

Back in Britain, with the Con-Dem’s cuts agenda in full swing, it is vital that we fight back. For a start we must demand that the £120 billion a year that goes uncollected in tax from the super-rich is rightly collected so that society can be rebuilt in a democratic fashion under our control. Then we might consider working collectively to build a political party that represents working class interests not the ruling class (be they Tory’s or Labour). Here a suitable form for such an organization is provided by TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition). The fight-back is now growing in earnest, and a socialist future, where access to food is guaranteed for all, is growing closer by the day.

Michael Barker can be reached at: mbarker@riseup.net

Notes

[1] Mike Davies, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2001); or for the classic statement on food politics, see Susan George, How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (Penguin, 1976).

[2] John Bason is also a board member of the Compass Group plc, whose former head, in the not so distant past, was the recently appointed chairman of the British Red Cross, Charles Allen. Note: Allen should perhaps be more famous for being the chairman of the 2 Sisters Food Group, which in the past few years has been very busy attacking the pay of conditions of their already poorly paid workers.

[3] Capital Area Food Bank is just one of a national network of 200 food banks that are organized within something called Feeding America. The chairman of Feeding America being Dave Brearton, the chief financial officer of Mondelez International — a position he has held since May 2011, when the company was known as Kraft Foods. Likewise, the vice chairman of Feeding America is Bob Aiken, the former CEO of US Foods.

For a treatment of Food Banks in the US context, see Jan Poppendieck, Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (Penguin, 1999).

[4] Barrick Gold board member Dambisa Moyo is counted as a patron of the charity, Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), which is one of the biggest sponsors of academies in Britain. Note: before launching the Tory’s “Big Society” program Lord Nat Wei had worked as a consultant for ARK.