Two challenging questions have been posed in politics this week. First, whose job is it to feed the hungry in Britain? An all-party group of MPs has drawn attention to the growing role of voluntary food banks.
They call for a new publicly funded body” Feeding Britain” to take responsibility for co-ordinating state-backed food banks. The MPs say schools that already hold breakfast clubs for pupils not fed at home should also provide free school meals during holidays. The Archbishop of Canterbury who funded the MPs inquiry has backed them; expressing shock at the numbers of poor Britons needing food help.
A food bank pioneer disagrees with the MPs and argues that voluntary food banks are not the disgrace some politicians claim but demonstrate the best instincts of ordinary people compassionately following their consciences. State involvement would not do a better job but would bring bureaucracy and politics to the task. His food bank distributes food donated by supermarkets that would otherwise go to landfill. It is alleged that annually millions of tonnes of edible food are thrown away and only 2% given to food banks to hand out.
The hunger problem has many causes. The MPs blame the growth of low paid jobs and call for increases in the minimum wage. Benefit cuts and public utilities charging premium rates also hit the poor. They also say some parents spend money on alcohol, smoking and gambling before feeding their children.
The second challenging question is: is Britain a great place in which to grow old? In some ways it is. Whatever its failings the NHS remains important for older people. The extra funding for health care announced by the Chancellor last week is welcome. So too is the reform of pensions. We have greater freedom to manage our pension funds but this requires us to act responsibly. The VAT refund for hospices will help those who need their care and support for research into ageing might yield some positive results. That said there are still 1.6 million older people in poverty who need to be kept aware of the benefits available and encouraged to claim them too.
On the other hand, if the family lives of our children break down or they live far from us, our later years could be lonely. Where this has happened the Local Authority care services become important and their funding to support us in our homes has not kept pace with our increasing numbers. Moving house in later life can be unsettling but if some of the new homes the Government want built are easier to manage, the upheaval could be worthwhile.
Material considerations are not the only ones that matter. Lots of churches now seek to offer neighbour love by organising community lunches and other events for older people, especially those living alone. If we are able we might even help to organise and make them better known.
We can thank God for the 1500 food banks and the volunteers who operate them and pray for the right solutions to the problems the MPs have highlighted.