Post-war Britain was an optimistic period. We had won the war- with much help- and were bent on creating a welfare state in which people were protected from cradle to grave. We still have the National Health Service, but in the last few years there has been an explosion of food poverty. As benefit cuts, imposed after the banking crisis, bite, many people cannot afford a meal. Food banks, such as the Trussel Trust, are proliferating. Often they are run by churches. Despite their efforts, we are merely staving off the worst. Britain needs a renewed effort to produce food on its own and put this production into the hands of ordinary people.
Dig for Victory: again
As Britain has to endure the scandal that many of its impoverished citizens are having to turn to food banks to find a meal the time has come to develop community horticulture.
Food poverty in Britain
Let me get this clear. No one has yet died of starvation because of government cuts, but many people go hungry and underfed. Due to the effects of the economic crisis of the last few years, Britain's reasonably generous welfare system has come under immense strain, and cuts were necessary, as they have been in all areas. However, denying that cuts cause problems is the province of politicians who feel embarrassed by the results of their policies. The Conservative government minister who claimed that people who use food banks are just after a free meal is not to be taken seriously. Between April and September 2013, 355,985 people, including 120,000 children, received food parcels as they could not afford to buy food. This number is vastly increased since 2012. The Red Cross is now planning to distribute food parcels to the needy, the first time since the Second World War that it has done so. But even more problematic now is that some people are returning food that needs to be heated, as they cannot afford to switch on their electricity to heat it. but I must emphasise that this is not a widespread problem, as it concerns the socially deprived stratum of society, but once we had a net strong enough to care for these people, and now that net is failing. The problem is worsening, and the Prime Minister, basically a decent well meaning person, does not know what to do about it, and the problem is growing.
I am under no illusion that this is a uniquely British problem, and that there will be other places where this sort of trouble occurs, but once we did not have it. Now we do. New problems require new solutions, or perhaps the resurrection of old ones. They also require a change to social organisation to deal with them. The old solution that I would like to renew is a return to the wartime principle of dig for victory, but now it would be dig against poverty.
Economical Use of Land
The idea that social problems can be solved by handouts is as much a delusion as the belief that handouts do no good. They see people through a hard patch, but there is no substitute for employment at a fair wage. But that is not the remit of this article, I am more concerned with how to remedy food poverty for the badly paid, unemployed and under-employed.
What strikes me is that Britain is an agriculturally productive place. Its soils are good and its climate benign. What is to stop its people growing much of their own basic food needs? In war time our forebears made a monumental effort to grow the nation's needs, and thus they endured the Nazi blockade. What is to prevent this happening again. This raises the issue that there is much land wasted. I am not speaking or urban leisure land, such as parks, that do great work as the lungs of the cities, or even sports grounds and race courses, but some, I know not how many, farms have become rich people's toys, land kept for leisure. Just as in wartime, the government took emergency powers to force people to use their land wisely, so nowadays, as the food crisis grows, why cannot the government take powers to ensure that every farm is properly utilised. This is not to discredit British farmers, as they farm in a very efficient way, but it is to point out that underused land is socially irresponsible. There is nothing illiberal in demanding that it be used properly.Hunger is always an emergency. We need a national audit of land to see how much is not being used well.
Food security in one country is part of a growing problem across the world,as pressures on food supplies grow ever greater. Britain, for a long time an importer of food, must increase its efforts to produxe more domestically grown food than it already is doing. Farmers are doing their best, but we need more peope to use their gardens productively.
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Yet farms alone will not be the only answer. What better than to empower people to feed themselves? Here is where my scheme differs from conventional socialism. Put simply,my economics is the economics of Elwin Schumacher, the writer of the iconic book Small is Beautiful. Schumacher rejected the massive state, which he saw as repressive, but he also rejected the minimal state of the philosophies of the right. He believed in empowering local communities to solve their own problems, and unlike tradtional socialists he supported individual efforts at taking personal responsiibility. Schumacher believed in civil society and the localized state. Civil society is intermediate between the state and the individual. It is voluntary association under the power of local people rather than under bureaucrats. Schumacher gave us social responsibility with liberty.
We need community growing schemes. In Cuba they have the hydroponicos, community gardens in which the people of the towns grow their own food, which could be a model for other societies. There could be problems in finding land, but there are parcels of land still available that could be used. Already I have donated some spare onion sets to a community land project in a deprived part of Manchester that is to be run by local women. It will enable them to grow food for their families. We should never underestimate the strength of women's networks. The social bonds that they forge are immensely powerful and productive. Community allotments need to be developed across Britain, and I suggest that the scheme might spread across other advanced societies. We need to keep them out of the hands of the bureaucrats, who love control, and developers, who want to profit from the land.
Thankfully schools are now teaching chiilden to grow their own food. It is a far cry from my schooling, because I was not allowed to take gardening because I was in the top class. Only the intelellectually weak boys [no girls] did Rural Studies. I used to look longingly at their greenhouse and the lovely vegetable beds. The Education system has much to answer for.
Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall, head of the successful River Cottage enterprise, has pushed the idea of landshare, in which people find parcels of land which are then developed into community growing schemes. Hugh has had great success in his enterprise and is doing much for food security in Britain.
Small is beautiful
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There was a time when I could have said that Britain was an island not stalked by hunger, but now for a small, but growing minority of our citizens hunger is a reality: not the grinding hunger of parts of Africa, but undernourishment and times when there is nothing on the table. Dealing with this hunger cannot be separated from a massive examination of the distribution of wealth in society. As the country has increased its productivity, there has been no rise in living standards for the ordinary people, the workers. All the profits flow into the pockets of the upper echelon, the chief executives, the bankers and top professionals. This situation can only be resolved by economically empowering people, for it is the disempowerment of ordinary folk by the capitalist system that we suffer at the moment that is causing these problems