My full interview with Tara Osman, writer of the critically acclaimed play Food Bank As It Is. You can see the play on 5 March at the Chelsea Theatre, south west London
What drove you to take your experience as a food bank manager and turn it into an educational performance piece?
I was extremely disturbed by what I saw at the food bank pretty much from the first day I started working there. I was initially employed as a support worker and had ample opportunity to talk with people about the reasons they were using the food bank. What I realised was that many people were there as a direct result of policies and decisions made by the government and relating to the welfare benefits system, for example the use of sanctions, the long delays in receiving benefits payments when switching from one type of benefit to another (way before Universal Credit was rolled out), the re-assessment of many Employment and Support Allowance claims resulting in people’s claims being suspended and their payments being stopped. I was particularly appalled at the number of children and disabled people we were helping. And I witnessed many people in states of distress, crying and expressing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, even talking about wanting to kill themselves. I felt as though these stories were not being told and that in general the public had no idea how bad things were and how much the welfare benefits safety net had been eroded. So, I found myself getting more and more angry and letting off steam at the end of the day to anyone that would listen. At a certain point I began to feel a moral imperative to speak out and the idea of writing something for theatre came to me.
What I really wanted was to convey to others what it is like to hear someone’s story of going without food, to witness her breaking down in tears or to be with him while he eats his first meal in five days. I wanted to bring the food bank to life for those who don’t know what it’s like to be in one with the aim of galvanising audiences to take some kind of action after seeing the play.
I had already started writing the play when Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake came out. I found the film to be a very accurate and sensitive portrayal of one man’s treatment by the state, and was incensed when I watched news reports of comments in the House of Commons to the effect that the film is a work of fiction and represents an extreme case. After this it seemed even more important to get the play out there as it is based on real stories and no-one can say it’s fiction.
Parallel with the startling rise in food bank use since 2010 has been the rise in media coverage of them; often mixed but at least pushed into the public psyche. Do you think this has had a positive or negative effect on the public perception of food banks and the wider issues surrounding their purpose and use?
I find that whilst there is more awareness that food banks exist, there is still a huge lack of awareness about who they serve, what exactly they do, and what underlying factors drive their use.
I think people often confuse food banks with soup kitchens and assume that we help mainly homeless people. When I talk with people who are volunteering at the food bank for the first time, they often express surprise at the diversity of our clientele, and it’s true that there is no ‘typical’ person who uses a food bank. Despite this the myth of the ‘scrounger’ still persists, from what I can tell, and is incredibly hurtful for people who use food banks, many of whom talk of the shame of stepping through the food bank door. It’s as though they have internalised the negative view of themselves peddled by certain elements of the press. If there is one thing I would like to ask for from the media it would be to change and challenge the narrative that people have somehow brought their troubles on themselves, or aren’t trying hard enough to manage, because this stigma really hurts people.
In terms of why food banks are needed there is some excellent coverage in the left-wing press but I’m not sure that media coverage on the whole has really got the message across. For example, one of our clients at the food bank recently gave an interview to a London newspaper. The article was poorly written in my opinion and the crucial details of exactly what had happened to bring this client to the food bank were omitted. The comments underneath the online article ranged from supportive to abusive, and I felt that the article had let our client down by not being specific about her situation. For example, it’s not that she was budgeting her money poorly; she actually had no money at all with which to budget as her husband is too ill to work yet has not been granted ESA, and she herself does not have a work permit for this country. People make all sorts of assumptions about food bank clients and they can only be challenged by accurate and detailed reporting. The reality is that there are often very specific and preventable reasons why people need food banks, and there is well-researched evidence available to the media if they choose to look at it.
There is also a specific issue with media coverage of food banks in that almost all the images and statistics cited are provided by the Trussell Trust, which represents about two thirds of food banks in the UK and has a particular model for delivery of its service. The other third are independent food banks who at present do not collate their data as a group. Any figures given on food bank use in the UK are therefore an underestimate. Independent food banks operate in many different ways, for example they don’t always require their clients to have a voucher for each visit, and may be linked to other projects such as community gardens, food co-operatives etc – this view of food banks is not one that is generally reported.
Having said all this, there are clearly many people who are well-informed about food banks and extremely generous in their support of them. Sometimes when we are collecting food for the food bank people will buy a whole basket of food, not just one or two items. I noticed a clear increase in donations and offers of help to the food bank after I, Daniel Blake came out, with many people specifically mentioning the film as an incentivising factor. We have never been short of sanitary towels since that film! (There is a scene in which the female lead has to shoplift sanitary towels as she can’t afford to pay for them).
The Conservative government often argue that the rise in food bank use is due to increased awareness and improved referral services. Do you think this is the case?
The rise in food bank use is a very rough and ready indicator of levels of poverty. We can see in research from many other reliable sources that levels of poverty, deprivation and destitution are increasing in the UK – it would be very strange indeed if none of this increase was reflected in increased food bank use. What we know from research is that people turn to food banks as a last resort and that there are many people who could benefit from food banks but do not use them, either due to lack of awareness or reluctance to use them.
Of course, when any new service is set up and advertises itself, more people will hear about it and more people will refer to it. So, a percentage of the increase in food bank use will be due to increased awareness. This does not mean that demand for food banks is ‘created’ by their very existence, rather that more of the people who are going without adequate food are able to access a food bank.
At the moment we do not measure food insecurity in the UK, unlike in some other countries such as the US. If the Conservative government seriously want to find out whether food bank use is going up due to increased need or just increased awareness, they might do well to sign up to Emma Lewell-Buck MP’s 10-minute bill to measure food insecurity, which is due for it’s second reading in October, and start to measure the extent of the problem.
So, how hard was it to turn something very personal to you into a piece of art?
To be honest, it doesn’t feel like something that’s particularly personal to me, it’s just something that I’ve been in a position to witness and write about, and feel a responsibility to bring to public consciousness. It would actually have felt harder to not write about it, I think I would have resigned rather than continually confront things I felt furious about and yet powerless to change. I’ve written myself into the play as a narrator figure and character as I think it helps to elucidate the issues, to see my journey from someone who thinks she’ll take it all in her stride to a person who is outraged and shattered by what she sees. I would say that working at the food bank has politicised me to a large degree, and this probably shows in the play.
And I have had the honour of working with a group of actors and crew who came to the project as they were drawn to the subject matter and are as committed as I am to promoting social change through theatre. There have been times for all of us, I think, when we have been challenged by the work but we have always supported and encouraged each other. Any difficulties that we might experience are nothing relative to the hardships that hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country are facing every day.
How much do you think art can be used as a force of good within politics? And do you think we are seeing a renaissance of this, or has any politically-motivated art been consumed now by commercial interests?
I absolutely believe in the power of art as a force for good in politics. Human beings react so strongly to the use of imagery, music and story and we can use art in all its forms to help us understand the world around us in ways that we can’t through use of the intellect alone. How much more powerful is it to hear words spoken directly to you by another human being from a stage, who is looking out to the audience, about what happened when his money was cut off than simply to read that such a thing has happened? Art in general, and stories in particular, enable us to empathise with the experience of others, and surely empathy should lie at the centre of political life? Otherwise we end up dividing people into ‘them’ and ‘us’, and that can only end badly. I have found theatre to be a hugely powerful tool in speaking directly to people’s hearts, and I think it is very much under-utilised in politics and education.
One thing I have noticed as a newcomer to the world of theatre is how much it is a world unto itself, like many other disciplines. I like to imagine a society in which practitioners from professions such as medicine, law, social work, teaching, and yes even politics collaborate with theatre makers to produce exciting, relevant and current work that can inform the practice of all concerned. There has to be a way to bring theatre more into daily life, as well as bringing daily life into theatre.
I can’t really comment on whether or not there is a renaissance of political art at the moment, I haven’t been observing that world for long enough to judge. I have seen some very good pieces of theatre over the last year which examine social issues such as housing and misogyny, and I think the increasing use of verbatim testimony indicates an engagement with real world issues. One thing I can say is that the time is ripe for political art, there is so much that we need to fix. I worry that we are sleepwalking into a future that none of us want, lulled into indifference by social media, Netflix and gaming. We need to wake up and take action if we want things to change.
What do you hope the audience will take from the play?
The aim of the play really is to show the often-devastating impact of policy decisions on the lives of real people, to break through the rational defences that people put up when they want to justify ‘tough decisions’. I hope that our audiences will come away with the sense that something is happening under our collective noses that we really shouldn’t be tolerating, that somehow, we have been sold the story that what’s happening is OK when it isn’t.
We always follow the play with an invitation to the audience to give an immediate one-word response to what they have just seen, followed by a discussion with a panel and / or the cast and myself. This is because we want the audience to go away not just with a sense of how difficult things are at the moment, but also a sense of what they can do to help. And by help, I mean to help address the issues underlying food bank use and ultimately make food banks a thing of the past. Quite often people ask afterwards how they can support their local food bank. Obviously in the short-term food banks are a necessary band aid. But really, we want people to focus on the longer term, we want to see a society in which food banks are no longer necessary. So, the discussion is an integral part of the play, and we are currently looking at ways to make it as open and honest as possible so that people feel they can voice anything at all that they are thinking. The strapline of the play is There is no them, only us, and we extend this to political affiliation too – we’re not there to bash the government or people who voted for them, we just want to point out that there are some policies that are really hurting people at the moment, and that surely it is in all of our interests to honour the human right to food. In my view simply attacking one side will only result in defensiveness and mean that we are less likely to attract audiences who could learn from what we have to say. One of my proudest moments so far since performing the play has been when an audience member stood up at the end and said ‘I’m probably more right-wing than most other people here, but I don’t want to live in a society where this happens’.
For anyone in the audience who has used a food bank or experienced food insecurity, I hope that they will feel supported and less alone. Sometimes people have stood up after the play and said, ‘Yes, that was my experience’.
Do you think there is a quick fix to the food bank crisis? Or do we need to see a paradigm shift as a society?
We managed largely without food banks prior to 2010 (there were a few prior to this but they really started to burgeon in 2010). Then came austerity and major cuts to the welfare benefits system, including the loss of easily accessible emergency funds for people in crisis. Does reinstating the welfare safety net (at an adequate level that enables people to live above the poverty line) count as a ‘quick fix’? Or have we as a society moved so far away from embracing the welfare state that this would count as a paradigm shift? The Trussell Trust’s June 2017 report ‘Financial Insecurity, food insecurity and disability’ is a must-read document for those wishing to understand food bank use and gives many clues as to how to fix the crisis; for example, fully one third of households using food banks during the period surveyed were waiting on a benefit application or benefit payment they had recently applied for. Most had been waiting between two and six weeks for a payment. Quick fix: speed up the process, or provide an easily accessible and well-publicised emergency fund to support people while they are waiting.
We need the political will to come up with an ‘exit plan’ for food bank Britain, and we need food banks to focus their efforts on planning for a future in which they are not needed. This may mean that individual food banks look at transforming their services from emergency food aid to a more positive and proactive food-hub model, which all local residents can make the choice to attend (but don’t have to depend on) if they would like to access cheap, locally-grown produce, community meals, school holiday schemes etc (these are just examples).
In my view it is crucial that we nip in the bud any further institutionalisation of food banks and in particular that we don’t go down the route trodden in the US where food manufacturers and retailers are intimately involved in the food bank business and food poverty has become something that provides commercial benefits.
But most of all we need to confront what is happening in the UK head on, look it in the eye and make a decision as a society – do we or do we not think it is OK that so many of our fellow citizens (children as well as adults) are regularly going hungry, sometimes going without food for days? Is this really acceptable? If it’s not then we need to do something about it, and fast.
With thanks to Paula Peters for the image.