Catriona Stewart: Why the basics like food should never be thought of as privilege

Soup kitchen and foodbank at Central Station run by Homeless Project Scotland
Soup kitchen and foodbank at Central Station run by Homeless Project Scotland

RECENTLY I've spent a considerable amount of time writing about foodbanks. I'm loath to call it a hot topic, as it's undeniably crass, but, unfortunately, that's what it is.

Whether soup kitchen or foodbank, established nationwide charity or adhoc local group, it's striking just how passionate people are about helping.

Having written about foodbanks for a good decade now, the willingness of volunteers and those who donate has always been strong.

Now, though, there feels a particular fury to it, more of a forcefulness. I imagine it's born as a result of the inevitable helplessness people feel at the moment in the face of relentless bad news and the knowledge that so many people are truly struggling as the economic downturn bites.

Many of the people I've spoken to are new to volunteering, and slightly surprised at themselves, but outraged at the idea of their neighbours being unable to feed themselves or their families.

A common theme has kept cropping up in interviews: people who volunteer or donate or who are otherwise involved in the running of foodbanks will talk about those who rely on the service and say something like, "I realise I'm privileged" or "I'm very lucky".

Privileged? For being able to put on the food table? I balk at the notion.

It's a good 10 years since the phrase "check your privilege" entered the public conversation. It was first used around 2006 but was largely an academic term, finally exploding across social media and newspaper thinkpieces around 2012.

Rising to prominence in feminist discussions about intersectionality - where, for one example, feminism and race meet - it is a snappy way of telling someone to be aware of the benefits of their own position when making a political point.

A darling phrase of the left, it almost ironically seems like it should come from the right, given the way it forces people to think of broad issues in a hyper-individualised way.

In saying that, I do think it's useful to be aware of your own good fortune but in this case, in the case of the provision of food, having enough to eat should never be thought of in terms of placing someone in a privileged position.

It shows how bad the state of play is that three meals a day - rather than being the most basic of needs and rights - can be framed as being the preserve of the privileged.

Of course, that just about is the case, if we swap "privilege" for "financially stable" but, again, those two things should not be interchangeable. Having enough to make life comfortable and, dare we say it, enjoyable, should be non-negotiable.

The notion of food as privilege extends only so far as certain groups of people. We've recently heard politicians suggest people seeking asylum should count themselves lucky to be in this country at all, no matter the conditions they are forced to live in.

A month or so ago, I interviewed a group of women seeking asylum in Glasgow. They were all pregnant and concerned at the quality of food they were being offered in the hotel accommodation they'd been placed in. They were careful to point out how grateful they are for the food but said that it was simply inadequate to their needs.

As with all such news stories, the comments were mixed, including some of the predictable sneering at the women's audacity to ask for more than they were being given.

It's infuriating, this, the notion that for some people food is for fuel only while for others it is for enjoyment. Food is about so much more than sustenance. It is nourishment and community and pleasure. Everyone deserves this.

More recently, I was at the launch of Baroness Helena Kennedy's independent inquiry into asylum accommodation in Glasgow. It was extremely moving to hear, first hand, the testimony of a young man named Mo who had been stabbed at the Park Inn incident in Glasgow city centre in 2020. Rather than focus on the dreadful damage that had been done to him, he was keen to speak about the kindness he had encountered in Glasgow, where he had arrived two years ago as a teenager from Sierra Leone.

He told a story of how he and his brother had been talking about the poor quality of the Scottish diet when a woman approached to tell them that they'd been sold a pup - food here is delicious and she demonstrated it by cooking the boys a big pot of soup. It was, indeed, delicious and the best thing they'd had to eat in months.

Anyone who knows teenage boys knows of their big appetites, a universal truth no matter nationality. And to cook and to be cooked for are the ultimate expressions of love and care; this woman who cooked for them provided the ultimate welcome.

A staff member at the Park Inn put the leftovers they had been saving down the sink, as neat a metaphor for the treatment of asylum seekers as you might ask for.

When Mo did talk about the day of the stabbing he spoke of being taken to hospital and mentioned, as an aside, that he "ate well there". There was so much poignancy there: that he had the capacity for humour after what he'd been through, for a start.

A decent meal, though, should not be privilege.

The practice of acknowledging advantage in political discussions is ultimately well meaning. Decent people do not want to be seen to gloat. Decent people are also the type to be spurred to action by injustice, which is likely why this phrasing of food as privilege is taking hold.

Having an understanding of your own good fortune is useful in building a guiding moral core but there has to be caution in how it's applied. Framing life's basics as privileges does nothing but let off the hook those who are responsible for creating a society where everyone has what they need.

Read more by Catriona Stewart

Boy troubles? How feminism is the solution to male woes

'We were living in a prison': Asylum seekers on life in the Park Inn

Johnson's peers need to be shown the door