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Christian food aid could be excluding those from other religions in need of help

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Bradford in the north of England is a city with a multi-ethnic, multi-faith population and very high levels of inequality. In a 2016 analysis we found that 14% of women with young children in the city could not afford to put food on the table.

Now we’ve published new research scrutinising the provision of food aid by faith-based organisations in the city, warning that people in need from non-Christian faiths are at risk of being unintentionally excluded. The low use of Christian, faith-based food aid by the local Pakistani community – the majority of which is Muslim – raises concerns about how well food aid provided by Christian organisations is able to serve those of other religions.

Food aid providers are working harder to mitigate the negative social impacts of austerity for people living in precarious situations. But it seems we are going backwards. Food aid today bears similarities to the system of support available before the welfare state was introduced – one where the “deserving” were the ones who got help.

The demand for food aid in the UK has been rapidly rising since 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis and the austerity policies that followed it. In 2015-16, 1.1m people received emergency food supplies from food banks run by the Trussell Trust – a charity founded on Christian principles. But these figures underestimate the number of people facing insecure food access in the UK and provide a misleading picture of food insecurity. UN survey data suggested that an estimated 8.4m people – 10.1% of the UK population – were food insecure in 2014.

Trussell Trust foodbanks are the most well known form of food aid in the UK, but we found there are many other forms of support that are just as active in Bradford. These include independent food banks, soup kitchens, community cafes and community allotments.

Few Muslims going to Christian food banks

During six months in 2015, we spoke to 27 people working to help provide food aid and combat food poverty in Bradford. The people we spoke to were either directly managing a food bank, or held positions of responsibility to try and prevent food poverty, including in local government.

Despite the generosity of many of those involved, we found that some food aid was being dispersed in a way that could potentially be exclusive. In Bradford, faith-based food aid was common, but most faith-based providers were Christian, with very little Muslim provision. Of the 67 community food aid providers, 35 were secular, 24 Christian and seven Muslim. Secular provision is largely run by charities, a minority of which are funded by the local authorities.

However, the spread of these food aid providers doesn’t reflect Bradford’s religious demographic: 24.7% of the population identify as Muslim and 20.7% describe themselves as having no religion. Many of these Muslims will come from Bradford’s Pakistani community, which is a vulnerable group. Infant mortality is particularly high for babies of Pakistani origin, with 12.9 deaths per 1,000 live births – more than double the average for England and Wales. The Pakistani community is mainly concentrated in the income-deprived inner city neighbourhoods, where 62% of residents are South Asian.

Bradford has a large Muslim community. atoach via flickr, CC BY

Although there is no data kept on the exact number of people from each religion or none who attend each food bank, managers at all the Christian food banks and soup kitchens we interviewed told us that they served very few Pakistani or Muslim people. Among all of the food aid providers in the city, clients were predominately “white British”, with a large minority of recent migrants from the European Economic Area.

Secular food banks and soup kitchens provided by members of the Pakistani community reported serving more Pakistani people than Christian food banks did, but Pakistanis were still a minority of those among their clients. This implies that Muslims, particularly those of Pakistani origin, are less likely to seek out food aid from any organisation, not just Christian ones. We are currently interviewing Pakistani families with low incomes in Bradford to investigate why this is.

Pray first, food second

The people we interviewed did not tell us why there was an absence of minority ethnic groups seeking help from the food-aid providers that were Christian. But we identified possible forms of unintentional exclusion, predominantly by Christian food banks but also by some secular organisations. For example, most secular and Christian organisations were unable to cater for cultural diets, and did not provide halal meals.

In some food banks and soup kitchens, there was an expectation for clients to engage with Christian doctrine or symbols. In some Christian organisations that we visited clients were informed they were in “God’s house” or were required to pray or listen to a sermon before eating. Bible classes were also offered and religious music was played as clients ate food.

One Christian soup kitchen manager we interviewed, when asked what motivates the people working there to volunteer, said the charitable response to hunger was considered to be a form of prayer:

It is religious for sure. We don’t see it so much as a social work as much as like a response to a spiritual call, just our faith, and serving the Lord and the poor.

A manager of a Christian food bank told us that faith-based food aid could be considered an opportunity for preaching to or praying with clients, at times with the objective of religious conversion:

The other thing which some people find difficult but which we do offer, we make it clear that we are a group of churches running it and that we are a Christian organisation. We believe in the power of prayer and we offer to pray with people.

All this is taking place as the politics of austerity remove responsibility for poverty and hunger further from the state. But rather than developing into a proxy welfare state to fill this gap, we found that food aid, particularly when provided by religious organisations, is reflective of a pre-welfare state system of food distribution that was supported by religious institutions and philanthropy. In this context, staff, working in a sector that is unregulated, may distribute assistance according to “deservingness” or adherence to standards of behaviour. As the distribution of food aid grows, we are going back into the past.

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