Food and money

raspberriesI am almost at the halfway point of the fast, after tomorrow there will be fewer days to do that have already been done, and the golden moment when I can eat again will be approaching rapidly.

Of course there is still some way to go, twenty days is not a short amount of time to fast.

But yet again this highlights to me the immense privilege I have in such a defined period of not eating.

I was able to prepare for it, take it on as a mental and physical challenge, and then look forward to a definite ending point.

I am also able to reassure people that: ‘If I get ill, I will stop’. All the while knowing that the likelihood of me falling ill is remote in the extreme.

As I have noted previously, those who go without food for reasons of poverty have none of these advantages. And the likelihood of them falling ill is significantly higher.

Another startling thing I have noted during this fast is the link between food poverty and crime. It is obvious when you think about it – we’re existing in a place of plenty, where window displays scream ‘consume consume’ and most people’s cupboards groan with edible things from all around the world.

For the hungry man or woman it must seem incredibly tempting to pocket something.

And that is happening – to a much greater extent than before. In North East Lincs the rate of shop thefts which are just food, has gone up to a massive 46%. In my book, that is as close as it needs to be to half of all shop thefts.

The police say that the vast majority of these crimes are due directly to food poverty.

And it’s not just here, a quick web search throws up stories from around the country about people who have been arrested for shoplifting food, often petty things like the man from South Shields who stole a pot noodle and a chocolate bar after a relationship breakdown left him homeless and broke. Or the down-on-his-luck teenager from Galashiels who stole muffins worth £2.00 from Asda. While the first was let off, the second received a four month sentence.

It’s not quite Jean Valjean territory – but we’re heading in the right direction.

Police have now been warning some time, of the rise in shoplifting from first time female offenders, all the more notable given that shoplifting is a male dominated crime.

One study in an area of Northern England showed that officers had stopped 26 first-time shoplifters, compared with five the previous year. Twenty of the people arrested were women, and 11 of the 26 incidents were low-value, food-related thefts.

A nationwide crime survey revealed a 4% rise in shoplifting, amid an overall 10% drop in crime.

For all the talk of economic recovery and budget giveaways, there is still little sign of any let up in the hardship faced by an increasing number of single people and families who are finding a way of scratching an existence amid the empty cupboards and grumbling stomachs of austerity Britain.

And that means that more and more desperate people will commit criminal acts, often while operating on low blood sugar and going through difficult and deeply unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from food.

I certainly accept that until the financial problems in our country are sorted out, there will be no end to this crisis, but whatever one’s approach to this matter, it is obvious that many people need help now, and they aren’t getting it.

How are you not dead?

waterBreaking away from my reflections on hunger and poverty for a moment, I’d like to answer a question that lots of people seem fascinated by – essentially the practicalities of doing a long fast, or as my friend George put it: ‘how are you not dead?’

Obviously at the moment I’m only about a quarter of the way through this fast, so it may seem a bit precipitate to talk about how to do long fasts, but at the same time this is something which I had to read up on quite a bit before starting, so I feel like I’m reasonably well equipped to give a basic overview.

Long fasts are something that many people do. Fasting is common across the faith traditions, and long fasts are often undertaken by ascetics seeking some form of enlightenment or spiritual clarity. Likewise people often fast as part of a health regime, people even go on fasting holidays, so they can feel hungry in a group.

Fasting itself is claimed to have many health benefits, from the detoxification of the system to reducing internal fat stores.

But of course, fasting isn’t for everyone, and for many people – especially children – it can be quite dangerous and harmful. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly or without careful thought. If you’re not sure, seek medical advice.

The fact is though that lack of food is something humans have had to deal with for millenia. Abundance of resources is only a relatively recent phenomena, and the human body is designed in such a way that it can go for some time without food without dying.

What it cant do is go for long without water, so I drink lots of that every day, along with a bit of juice, I also take vitamin supplements. The juice gives me a bit of extra energy, but in the main my body finds the energy I need elsewhere.

In case anyone isn’t aware of the basic biology of how that works, let me give a brief and probably slightly inaccurate explanation. We eat various kinds of things, one of the sorts of things we eat is carbohydrate, its found in potatoes, grains, and numerous other forms. We often consume it in the form of rice, pasta, or bread. Carbohydrate is broken down by the body into sugars and either used up as energy or stored as fat, so that when the body doesn’t get the energy it needs from food, it can break down the fat to get more energy. The less energy one uses, the more the carbohydrate is stored as fat.

I used to be more active than I am today, and as a legacy of that previous more active lifestyle I still tend to eat a lot of carbs, that means that I have a reasonable amount of fat stored in my body, which gives me something to rely on during this fast.

Now, the body doesn’t particularly like breaking its fat down into energy, it prefers to take on new energy through food, so when the fast begins there is some difficulty persuading it that you’re not going to eat. This is much more about a mental battle than a physical one – you have to fight the cravings for food that your system throws at you. The battle can be quite intense, and one can require a fair amount of resolve to get through it, but having a cause to fight for very much helps.

I am fortunate in that I am a vegetarian with a pretty healthy diet (my over consumption of carbs notwithstanding) I don’t drink alcohol or coffee (not because I’m a saint, but because I don’t like the taste) and I drink a lot of green tea, which is very good for you. All this means that my body is quite healthy, and I don’t have many food addictions, this made the detox process of the first three days somewhat easier. For those with a lot of food addictions, the detox process can be quite a bit harder, and can go on for longer – which is why its better to wean yourself off things before beginning a fast.

After those first few days, the body settles down into a rhythm of living of its reserves – that’s where I am now, and that will continue until all those reserves have gone – which I am hoping will not be for some time. When they have gone, I will go through another period of mental battle as the body begins to apply the brakes – the only energy it can get then is from my muscles, and it will begin the unpleasant task of consuming some of my muscle to create energy.

As things stand I am living off my fat, and that should remain the case for quite a while yet – the only difference I feel is a slight lack of energy, which I am managing reasonably well. I have made a pledge that should I become unwell, I will stop the fast, but at the moment well – I aint dead yet.

To read my previous reflections on the fast see previous posts here and here, and to learn more about the End Hunger Fast campaign and how you can get involved, go here.

Two sides of the same coin

doughnut“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Dom Hélder Câmara.

Walking along the road at the moment, I’m finding myself more than usually aware of the food litter which is left in the street.

It’s primarily wrappings from cheap food, and that reminds me of how easy it is to get hold of relatively inexpensive foodstuffs, which satisfy some immediate cravings for salt and sugar in particular.

But the flip side of this cheap food is that what it really does is further increase the body’s cravings for more of the same – the empty calories in a high fat, high sugar item for example don’t give the body what it needs.

It makes me wonder if this is why hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin in our society.

Those who I speak to who have experienced genuine food poverty are often not immediately identifiable as people who have gone without food. And yet I was speaking only this morning to a mother who told me how, on and off for nearly a year she had to skip meals altogether, or eat a slice of toast at family meal times in order to be able to feed her children properly. That particular lady does not look starved.

There is an epidemic of effectively toxic food in our society, highly processed, often lacking in any kind of nutritional value and full of addictive sugars, fats and salt. Coincidentally enough the off the shelf products are often at or close to the delicious 50% fat 50% sugar ratio which seems to be uniquely irresistible.

And processed food is cheap, relatively at least. For your pound you can get what appears to be a lot more from a packet of something than you can from vegetables, and for a lot less effort. But these foods are cleverly designed to addict their consumers, who like any addict want the same thing more and more often.

This again is another form of profiteering from hunger – make food appear cheap and yet ensuring that it leaves its consumer hungry for more.

A friend who works in maternal health notes that the biggest problem faced by those in his profession is obesity in young women. This is responsible for many of the problems that health professionals face, and yet it is a problem allowed to grow more or less unchecked under the guise of ‘personal choice’.

But the issue is huge, drawing as it does on a form of oppression of the underclass.  Recognition by multinationals that lack of awareness and education is often a characteristic of the less well-off means simple marketing can leave people hooked on empty calories and growing more and more unwell as a result.

Not only does this put a massive corporate burden on the NHS, but it also leads, in individuals, to the kind of food cravings which drive impulse buying. Impulse buying in itself is one of the causes of individual and family budget failures, and leads, directly, to poverty and hunger.

Those wrappers, I now recognise, are not only a symptom of over consumption, they are also a cause of hunger.

Read the first blog reflecting on my fast here, and get involved with the End Hunger Fast campaign here.

True Fasting?

chainIsaiah 58: v 6

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.

I woke up this morning with a sense of emptiness in my stomach. Not hunger – the discomfort and craving for food which I experienced in the first few days of my fast are not with me any longer – but a strange hollow feeling.

While emptiness is uncomfortable, it is easily bearable. And it is much to be preferred over the early part of the fast, when the body is effectively detoxing and craving all kinds of substances, sugar, salt, and fat in particular.

I have now reached the stage of Ketosis, the point in the fast where the body begins to break down its fat deposits via the liver, to turn them into energy. Until this stage ends, I am not expecting to be terribly uncomfortable for a while.

But the thing is this: Most people who are going without food in the UK today are not doing so over long drawn out periods of never eating. They are missing meals here and there, they are going without food for a couple of days at a time.

More than that, they don’t have the luxury of planning or researching their hunger, as I have my fast.

Often these short blood sugar draining spells of hunger can lead to rash decisions. Just as most of us know we should not go food shopping when we feel hungry, so it’s best not to apply for a pay-day loan while you have low blood sugar. Hungry people are easy targets for exploitation.

Occasionally these rash hungry decisions can end up in criminal acts – there is nothing new about this: an ancient Hebrew Proverb calls on God to neither provide too much nor too little – in order that one should neither grow rich and ignore God, or grow poor and have to steal to get what one needs. (Proverbs 30: 7-9)

Another side effect of the early stages of going without food is a slow down of the body’s essential services, in particular the ability to regulate heat. I’m a naturally warm person, but even I was cold and shivery in the first couple of days of the fast.

This reminds me too that one of the big tussles people have financially is with the costs of heating their homes – the ever present card or key meter ticking down until ‘clunk’ the energy goes off. No central heating, no hot water. The difficult decision of whether to put more money on the gas card, or to get some food is not one to be made when the body is craving sugar.

I’ll continue to blog my thoughts on hunger as I fast through Lent – I’m now on day five, an eighth of the way through, and the other 35 days still seem like an improbably long period of time, but there is light at the end of my tunnel – I will eat again. I am privileged to be able to make this choice. Others are starting their own involuntary fasts today, and for them there is no clear way out.

You can sign up to join the End Hunger Fast campaign here – why not join the many others who have pledged to fast for the day on April 4th?

Subversive Parables

talents-page1.inddYesterday I was privileged to be with a great group of people who work for or are linked with Together For Peace in Leeds. We looked at an on-the-ground attempt at peacemaking in communities, and reflected a little on some of the thinking that has helped us on our individual and collective journeys.

One guy who came in for a very honourable mention was William Herzog, who’s book ‘Parables As Subversive Speech’ is a really helpful piece of work.

The discussion reminded me of a comic project that the mighty Steve Beckett and I collaborated on a few years ago for a magazine called ‘A Pinch Of Salt’. It was a Herzog inspired version of ‘The Parable of the Talents’. Download and enjoy.

talents-page1 and talents-page2

End Hunger Fast

file9941313599376This Lent I will be fasting from food for forty days.

I’m doing this because I want to raise awareness of the fact that in my community, and in other towns, villages and cities around this country, people are going hungry every day. Parents are making the hard choices between food and fuel, between eating themselves, and giving food to their children.

In my own area of Grimsby the local food bank has seen a staggering rise in use since 2012 – a massive 420% more people are accessing the Daily Bread Food Larder food bank. Even more chilling is the statistic that 25% of those who are relying on food hand outs are children.

Across the country there are millions of people, many of whom are in work, who have had to access a food bank since last year. In that time thousands of people have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition.

In any country it is terrible that people should be going hungry. In a country like ours, a rich country where ‘money is no object’ when it comes to rescuing flood victims, and where billions are spent on bailing out banks, it’s nothing short of a total disgrace that people should be going hungry.

You may know that another issue in our town right now is the proposal that a new series of ‘Skint’ will be made here. It’s a programme which highlights the way some individuals have chosen to live in a climate of unemployment, benefit dependency, and social problems.

I have been involved, heavily involved, in campaigning to prevent this filming. But this is not because I don’t want the problems to be highlighted. Some people have said that we ‘shouldn’t hang out our dirty washing in public‘ – I disagree with that. I want people everywhere to understand the plight of those who live on or over the edge of poverty and hunger. I want us all to wake up to the fact that societal failings have led to children going hungry.

The difference is that I don’t want individuals and their families to become scapegoats for the moral failings of society. I’m not interested in providing fuel for a form of contemporary freak show where we can all gather round our large televisions and laugh at the village idiots in the hope that it will raise awareness of what our communities have to live with.

We need to face up to the problems of our society and acknowledge their causes, not mock their symptoms.

That is what I am going to be going without food for forty days, starting on Ash Wednesday, I’m doing it as part of the ‘End Hunger Fast’ campaign, and if you want to support what I’m doing, you can find ways of doing so on the campaign website.

A practical response could be that you could make a donation or series of donations to your local food bank, if you’re in Grimsby you can do that via either of the schools I work in, Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe or Oasis Academy Wintringham. If you want to join in by fasting, there is a national day of fasting on April 4th. You can also tweet your support using the hashtag #endhungerfast.

Some people have voiced concerns about my health, please be reassured that this is planned, and I have measures in place to protect myself from harm – but lets not forget that I’m privileged to be able to do that, for others this is more like a way of life.

 

Belief and the unbelievable

Brace yourself with the grace of ease, I know this world ain’t what it seems… You’re unbelievable. (EMF)

It’s interesting to consider what is now unbelievable, and what used to be. It would at one time been perfectly reasonable for instance, to believe that the world is flat – now we no longer think that is reasonable.

Similarly it was once very common to believe in a literal six day creation story, these days that is only thought to be reasonable if one belongs to a particular strand of a religious subculture.

Without making any sort of value judgement on the relative strengths or weaknesses of either of these beliefs, what I want to suggest is that there is a power dynamic at play in what is, and what is not, believable.

In both of the examples above, the power dynamic stems from the rule of the church over society. As modernity progressed the norms of belief which had solidified the authority of the teaching of the church as sovereign were gradually eroded – leaving us in a position where now the church is (relative to its previous position) marginalised. Please note that in talking about this I’ve genuinely no interest in trying to perpetuate the idea of the persecution of the church in the West or any of that stuff, I’m simply talking about the way that belief has developed.

What I am keen to do is reflect the way that what is believable and unbelievable changes according to who has particular interests to protect, and what they want to perpetuate. With the church as sovereign then certain Biblicist notions meant that particular things were unbelievable. With the modern ‘secularlist’ upsurge many of these ideas have become unbelievable.

For instance the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, or that women by nature cannot hold positions of power, or that the poor are feckless – beliefs aimed squarely at marginalising sectors of society to solidify the power of another sector.

What this means is that by reflecting on the way the power dynamics affect ‘believability’ we can turn an eye inward and ask what things are unbelievable today.

A good example is the very apparent battle over belief concerning who is to blame for the economic problems we currently face – various groups are lobbying hard to make it impossible to believe that they are responsible.

Another example of that could be the overturn or radical overhaul of the Western capitalist system – to ponder such an eventuality is ridiculous… isn’t it? It’s unbelievable that things could change to such an extent, right?

We need to ask, who currently has particular reason to ensure that certain things are unbelievable?

And what would happen then, if we all began to believe the unbelievable?

Read post one in this series – Belief and the believed.