Sometimes a small piece of information hits you between the eyes. At the start of the Forum, Newcastle West End Foodbank co-ordinator John McCorry told a packed concert room at the Tyneside Irish Centre of the scope of their activities.

Apologies if I’ve got the numbers wrong but John told us that co-ordinating activities across the city, Newcastle Food-banks arranged c.1200 food parcels per week.

As if that wasn’t depressing enough, more than 50% of those food parcels were destined for children. In Newcastle in 2021, in one of the richest countries in the world! It’s not Victorian England or the 1930s. It isn’t a sepia-tinted, gritty soap opera from the early ‘60s. It is not a far off place in the developing world. It’s here and only a few moments walk from where we live in a modern British city.

Numbers of this type are sometimes difficult to process. Numbers are people – exactly like you and I. People with flaws, who have made mistakes, are the victims of circumstance and admittedly made poor life-choices on occasion. Nothing however justifies not having enough food.

It is a genuinely staggering state of affairs which takes away dignity from many of our fellow Geordies and I don’t doubt severely hinders the development and life-chances of children. Jesus, it was bad enough in my school back in the ‘70s seeing kids provided with free dinner tickets in a separate queue to this.

In recent years, the Newcastle United Foodbank, collecting outside the back of the Gallowgate each match-day has become a familiar sight. The volunteers provide an essential role in providing the basics of life to people who for one reason or another find themselves in various forms of crisis.

The reasons for poverty and near destitution are manifold and complex. However, use of food-banks has accelerated in use in the NE and across the UK as an unmistakable consequence of government social security policy. That isn’t a political opinion, it is simply a fact. You simply cannot separate the political from this.

It has not happened by accident. Thousands of our fellow citizens depend on food-parcels as a consequence of policies implemented by the Conservative-led coalition government which took power in 2010.

Despite recognising the absolute critical need for those facing hunger to receive support, food-banks have always made me feel uncomfortable. Charity is no way to take care of the most basic needs of our fellow citizens.

Like many of you reading this, I’m from a solidly working-class back-ground and a heady mix of Irish and Geordie heritage. I grew up hearing tales of severe hardship in Ireland and here on Tyneside. The irony of these Press Forums in the Tyneside Irish Centre isn’t lost on me.

I heard my Dad tell us with tears in his eyes how his own mother made extra soup for some of his school-pals who’d be invited into the scullery and told to get some broth down them. Quiet, undemonstrative acts of kindness born of neighbourhood solidarity and basic humanity!  My tiny, tough granny with a big heart.

But that was the 1940s. That was before Beveridge and the evolution of the Welfare State. This is 2021 and in one of the most advanced economies of the world. We live in a country where a chasm  has opened up between people. There are those around us, who we pass on the street who face food poverty … which is a refined term for not having enough food to eat.

So, we have food-banks … run and supported by people of conscience and we have them now coalescing around football clubs and most significantly in places like Merseyside, Glasgow, Edinburgh and here in the North East.

I don’t think it is an accident food-banks have become so high profile in those parts of the UK. There is of course the poverty our own region shares with others but that is not unique to us or others I have name-checked here.

Food-banks have proliferated because there is something remaining in the air of solidarity and a shared memory of co-operative endeavour that gave us Colliery Welfares, Social Clubs sports clubs and others from the era of the industrial working class many of us sprung from.

Those social groups are now fading from view, like the original purpose of those cycle-ways (mineral lines) people puff around, taking the air and scenery as exercise.

But in the food-banks something of that spirit remains as it does in the unmistakable recognition that together we are stronger within the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. United We Stand, Divided We Fall. True now as ever.

Although as an avowed atheist I do see food-banks infused with practical Christianity and collectivism. As has been said by someone cleverer than me, the development of the Labour Party nationally owed more to Methodist scripture than Karl Marx.

But I digress.

The Press Forum featuring well-known and recognised football writers and organised by this fanzine raised £3000. The money will be winging its way to the food-bank and it will fund those food-parcels to people in Newcastle desperately need.

That’s a very good thing.

The Food-bank will be out before home games taking donations of money and food. That’s good too. Jamie Reuben has said that his family via their foundation will equal the amounts raised in match-day donations. That money will convert into food-parcels for those in need.

It is impossible not to acknowledge this as fulfilling a very short term need to put food onto tables in Newcastle’s poorest households.

But.

I ask are we growing accustomed to food-banks as an accepted part of the Welfare State?

Has the shock of food-banks given way to an acceptance as to how this is how things are? This is normal? This is an acceptable way to organise in society?

In my view they should not and government should have the instruments within its state operation to provide the basics of existence to those who need it. Food should not be dependent upon the vagaries, inconsistencies and unpredictability of charitable donation from good people.

As I grow older, my cynicism increases … food-banks as PR props for virtue signallers and platforms for attention-seekers. TF led this event under its “brand” so we can easily be accused of the same.

But the day to celebrate food-banks is when they aren’t required anymore and government develops social security policies that do not blame, shame, humiliate and stigmatise the poor.

£3000 raised – great stuff and thank you – but there’s a better way than this surely?

 Keep On, Keepin’ On …

 MICHAEL MARTIN – @tfMick1892