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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The UK has it's own version of the Hunger Games, and here it is.

About 15 years ago, I hit a patch where eating was suddenly a luxury. The thought of doing what I can do today - walk into a supermarket and buy food in quantities to feed myself for a week or more - was so far out of reach it was a pipe-dream.

I was between part-time jobs, and studying full-time. Things were strained with my folks for a variety of reasons, and sheer stubbornness wouldn't let me call them and say I needed help, which they would've done in a minute. (Of course, I would've had to find the money for the phone call. We had no landline, and cell phones were in the realm of yuppie-land, along with fancy holidays and weekly grocery shopping trips.)

On bad days, when I had nothing apart from some instant coffee and sugar to eat, I'd gather the clothes I could part with, head down to the local second-hand shop, and sell them. On very bad days, I also sold off some of my books.
If I was lucky I'd come out with R20 to R40, and head to the store. Toilet paper, canned food - running a fridge costs money - bread, noodles. To this day I have an absolute horror of instant noodles; the sight of those little packets takes me straight back to walking into a shop with my favourite blouse tucked into a packet, and knowing I was about to grovel in the hope of a fair price.

I never got to the stage where I dumpster dived - I'd have broken down and called my folks first - but I knew people who did. They'd wait for the clean-out of the local shop at 7 o'clock. Bread a couple of days past it's sell-by date, cold meats that had expired, as long as they weren't green. If they were hungry enough, they took a chance on the green meat. They didn't have people they could go to and tell about the yawning pit in the base of their bellies; when eating is a luxury, you are always hungry. It's like a rat, sitting in the corner of your brain and chewing quietly at everything.

Fast forward a couple of years. I was in my final year at college, sharing a house with my boyfriend and a flat-mate. We all had  steady part-time incomes, enough that we hired a cleaning lady to come in once a week. We had graduated to weekly shopping trips. We weren't rolling in caviar, but we weren't eating instant noodles, either.
The second week the cleaning lady came, I went home early from college, and found her scraping food scraps out of our garbage and eating it. It turned out she'd walked into town because she couldn't afford the bus fare, and she was looking after her grandkids and a mentally disabled son. She hadn't eaten in three days; the money she got went on food for them, and she was scared to take any of the food in the kitchen and lose her job.
She went home with a food parcel that day, and we made sure that we had bread or left-overs from the night before for her from then on. We weren't rich, but we weren't starving, and cursed if we'd let anyone under our roof leave hungry after cleaning our mess up. And I still remembered the rat, that little frantic chewing of hope and dignity.

When I moved to London twelve years ago, one of the things that struck me was the infrastructure that appeared to be in place to help people out. People struggling to live could get housing, could get a small allowance. Students were given an allowance to study. There were no street kids. There were very few homeless sleeping in doorways, compared to South African cities. They were still there, but when you've grown used to three-year olds begging for food and money with that rat already settled in behind their eyes, the impact is lessened. It shouldn't be, but it is. Humans have a strange capacity for accepting the unacceptable, for tolerating circumstances that should make them blanch and say enough. 

Since then, the tabloids and the wealthy darlings currently running the country have made ordinary people ashamed to claim benefits, often times benefits they desperately need, and paid for during their working lives. (I'm aware of the scroungers. I'm also aware that they're a pretty small percentage of the people claiming.) The shelters and housing have been slashed. The student allowance, often something poorer kids needed to pay for their transport and gear for college has been eliminated. Rentals have tripled in London, and the odds of me ever affording a mortgage for a property in the UK? I have a better shot at winning the lottery. Food prices have soared; it is cheaper to eat the burgers they sell for £1.99 than to buy a loaf of bread and a slab of cheese. (Tesco brand bread : 0.45p. Cheddar cheese: £2.49).
The current arrangement if you're out of work seems expressly designed to make it impossible to keep your dignity and meet all the requirements to sign on for job-seekers allowance.

In the years since I got here, I've seen more and more people appear on the pavements. They sit beside ATM's, or in the stairwells of tube stations, they huddle in doorways and train stations. They wait for the shops to close and hang around the dustbins. If they can't get anything from the shop bins - most of them now lock up their rubbish so people cannot access it - they'll hunt through the bins and bags left for collection on garbage day. Most of them are on intimate terms with the rat.

The shops - all of the supermarkets - throw away thousands of tons of food a year. Instead of using the centres set up to redistribute it, it gets tossed in the trash.

Every now and then, one of the people desperate enough to dig through that skip full of trash behind the shop gets arrested. They get charged with handling stolen goods, or vagrancy. This is not shop-lifting. This is food that was thrown out. In the case of the "stolen goods" conviction, the woman concerned was given the package of food by a friend. Somebody needs to explain to me how it is in my interests - or any of the publics interest - to charge people who are desperate for food with a crime? Tell me how grinding down someone already scrabbling to survive, already choking on the constant fear that comes with constant hunger, with that fucking rat scrambling and chewing at the base of your brain, makes this country better, safer and stronger?

Here's a thought. Pass a law that states that instead of filling the giant skip behind your store, you use the same people and time it takes to fill it and hand that food out to anyone who needs it. Set up a schedule in the front of the shop that people can see. The excuse that some of the food is dangerous doesn't wash: if it was good enough to be on your shelves at 9:55, it's good enough to hand out at 10:30 to the guy who hasn't eaten in three days. If you do have food on your shelves that is poisonous, you should get hit with jail-time and the mother of all fines. Anything that's left can get collected by the agencies you've carefully ignored. Anything that's left will result in a fine to the shop, and the records will be audited, along with spot inspections.

And here's another thought. If the people running the country do not do something to raise the folks currently struggling into a situation where they can improve their lives, instead of grinding them down harder and faster, the UK is going to turn into the same pressure-cooker that we're seeing in other parts of the world. We had a fun taste of it during the riots a couple of years ago. Personally, I don't want to see that happen again, and neither does anyone with an ounce of sense and sanity. But if you take everything from people, including hope and dignity, they have nothing left to lose, and that is incredibly dangerous. Using the results as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties will not address the underlying problem.

It isn't too late to turn it around. In another year, it may be. At the moment, the divide between the haves and have-nots is a yawning chasm. If someone doesn't built a bridge over it, we will end up with an overt class war; of the "eat the rich and bury the poor" kind.
Pressure-cookers and rats. It's a very bad combination.