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30 March 2012

The Politics of Food

The Politics of Food

Who would have thought that this week’s agenda would be so dominated by the politics of food? It started with the news that people who have so much money that they will never experience hunger have been invited to use some of it to buy dinner in the prime minister’s private flat – and with it the implication of access to political influence. By the end of the week the politics of food had descended from the heights of Samantha Cameron’s cuisine to the relative heat of a Greggs pasty. Cabinet ministers were teased about whether they could tell the difference between a Cornish pasty and a boeuf en croute! The political implication is clear. The food you eat is a crude but graphic indicator of your status in society, and with it your power or powerlessness.

My church is very big on food.  Every Sunday after the service someone – usually several people – will have brought buns, cakes or fruit to share.  It is always abundant and it is always free.  At the same time every Sunday a handful of local people slip discreetly into the church’s back office and emerge with carrier bags full of tinned goods from our food bank. Occasionally the incongruity of the two events catches me off guard. But I’m aware that both are celebrations of God’s grace, and together they represent the reality of life in our South Manchester community. 

In the meantime, on Thursday the House of Lords economic affairs committee proposed that the UK government should abandon its commitment to pass a law saying that the UK will spend 0.7% of our Gross National Income on aid.  This figure, which was adopted by donor countries around the world over 40 years ago, has been honoured as a target by every government since Margaret Thatcher’s (though none has so far reached it in practice). It was the only fiscal policy that all three major parties signed up to at the 2010 General Election. The Lords committee argues that enshrining the 0.7% target in law might actually be a distraction from the vital questions of how effectively our aid contributions are spent. Christian Aid and Tearfund have pointed out that once no one has to argue about how much money we spend on aid it might be easier to focus on how it is put to best use. I am a simple soul when it comes to food and to politics. For me it is impossible to imagine that rowing back on an election pledge about the aid budget will mean anything other than more children dying unnecessarily of hunger. 

The correlation between food and power is a very direct one.  That’s why the cry of the market trader in Isaiah 55:1 is so extraordinary. "Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy food and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” The stall holder stands in the crowded market place and shouts out: “Come on you lot, help yourselves!” It is impossible to conceive of a more open-handed approach to trading. It’s not that the food is free. Obviously you can’t buy anything without money. If you don’t believe me, try it in your local branch of Tesco! No, this food is zero-rated because the price has been paid by someone else. It’s a new economics that transforms the politics of food. But of course it is also a new economics of hospitality, of community and of love itself. 

Next week we will remember a night when friends gathered for a meal in an upper room, not in Downing Street but in Jerusalem. No money was exchanged for the invitation. Instead Jesus took bread and wine, gave thanks to God the provider, and gave it away saying “this is me“. The 19th century Bible commentator Albert Barnes wrote: “If the poor are willing to accept of it as a gift, they are welcome; and if the rich will not accept of it as a gift, they cannot obtain it. What a debt of gratitude we owe to God, who has thus placed it within the reach of all.”

Andrew Graystone is director of The Church and Media Network

100,000 people in the UK will receive free food this year through foodbanks organised by the Trussell Trust. For more information visit www.trusselltrust.org