A newspaper report revealed hungry people being helped by a Christian charity. And that’s news?
On Sunday April 20, the Mail on Sunday published an article which it says ‘exposes abuse’, accuses ‘scroungers’ of abusing the charities, and that repeat visits ‘undermine the [Trussell] trust’s claim of 913,000 users’. It details examples of undercover reporters masquerading as hungry people in need of help being given large quantities of food, without any rigorous background checks being made, and, anecdotally, of repeat visitors being helped for longer than the Trust’s guidelines stipulate.
Since the publication of the story, a social media backlash against the Mail has resulted in a huge surge of financial donations to the Trussell Trust, which runs 40% of the UK’s foodbanks. I wouldn’t mind betting that when the Trust and its foodbanks open up shop after the Easter break, this will be more than matched by a huge increase in food donations – and hopefully the independent (ie not run by the Trust) foodbanks will see similar increases.
What’s the real story here? The Trussell Trust published foodbank usage figures which show that the number of people helped is approaching 1 million. Those figures are always going to be subject to a great degree of interpretation – if the Trust was like Tesco and had a Clubcard scheme, they would be able to collect up-to-the-minute statistics on everyone who has ever walked in the door – but they’re not. They’re a charity with very limited funds and don’t spend a penny more than they have to on administration. The foodbanks it operates are actually run day-to-day by groups of local volunteers, who do their best to implement the Trust’s guidelines in the light of local need – which is as it should be. Of course it would be great if the exact same conditions applied in every town across the country, but that can’t happen in the loose franchise-like arrangements that the Trust has with the foodbanks on the ground. So there will be some significant differences in how the figures are collected, and in how the rules are applied.
Does this matter?
Of course not. The headline and the trend is what matters. Increasing numbers of people can’t afford to feed their families.
The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity, and most foodbanks are run by local churches and staffed by Christian volunteers. The Bible teaches us to love unconditionally. So should it be a surprise that sometimes the rules are operated in favour of a hungry family getting a bit more help than the guidelines say they should have? It would be much more of a story if the Mail’s report had revealed foodbanks being mean with their resources and not helping those in real need. But of course, that isn’t what they found.
The massive influx of funds and the outcry on social media shows how strong public feeling is against the way this story was put together, and will give the foodbank charities a much-needed shot in the arm. I hope that next time the Mail does its undercover mystery-shopper routine, there’s surplus food available so they can be given an even heavier parcel to demonstrate that a Christian charity’s heart for its community is so much bigger than even the Mail could have expected.
At the time of writing, the Trussell Trust’s ‘Help Crack UK Hunger’ campaign had raised £50,000 on it’s Justgiving page. You can donate at www.justgiving.com/crack-uk-hunger
Peter Bowyer is Xn’s web manager