COVID-19 and the myth of scarcity
Throughout Australia, people on low incomes and Centrelink benefits, like the Job Seeker Payment (formally Newstart), rely on food provided by charities. Every state has different organisations and they operate in a variety of ways. What is common for these charities is their reliance on food from supermarkets, fruit and vegetable stores and bakeries to give them their unsalable food. For bakeries, this is often at the end of the day. For supermarkets, it will often be food that is nearing its use-by or best before date and they can no longer legally sell it. For fruit and vegetable markets, it is often when the food is getting to a point of not being viable to sell.
What happens when those supermarkets and bakeries are stripped bare of all their food by people panic buying?
There is little left for those who need it most, at a time when demand will increase.
Meanwhile, fearful and scared shoppers are upset that supermarkets are putting limits on items. Ironically, the poor have long experienced food limitations.
In one Queensland community pantry, all visitors are interviewed to determine eligibility. It only opens twice a week for two hours each time. Approved clients put their name on a list with the number of people in their household and these are randomly selected in order. Names are called out and a volunteer takes them through the items, determining the quantity they can have that day. Sometimes there will be refrigerated food like yogurt or meat, but this is very limited. There is usually a good variety of fruit and vegetables, but this will diminish toward the end of the session, so those lower on the list will get less variety. There is also bread. Twice a year clients are eligible for 10 pantry items. All of this is free.
In a South Australian Food Bank, people must also be interviewed. They are given a white card which gives them four visits to the Food Bank and shows how much money they are allowed to spend. A single person on the Job Seeker Payment is eligible for $25, a family of four can purchase more. They need to prove their identity every time they visit and can only come a maximum of once a week. Once the four visits have been used up, they have to be interviewed again to continue to prove eligibility and receive another white card. They are allowed up to 15kg of fruit and vegetables for free each visit as well as bread. Everything else though has a cost. Most items are a flat $2 per kilo because most of the food is out of date pantry and fridge items. There is usually very little variety of vegetables, often only potatoes, carrots and onions. Weeks can go by with no fruit. Personal hygiene items like shampoo and soap are rare and may only be seen a few times a year. Sanitary items are strictly limited to one item per card. Months can go by without toilet paper and when it is available, there is a strict four roll or less limit.
This system relies on the poor only being able to eat the left overs of the ‘wealthy’.
God had very different standards when it came to caring for the poor. In Leviticus 19:9-10 and later in Leviticus 23:22 God gives very clear instructions to Moses and the Israelites that they are not to harvest the entire field nor take every grape from the vineyards. Something was always to be left for the poor and the sojourner. In Ruth 2, we read the practical outworking of this. Ruth, a Moabite, is able to gather grain from Boaz’s field and feed herself and her mother-in-law. Of interest is the fact that there is no restriction on the size or quantity to be left. The underlying concept was generosity. It also meant that the poor and alien were engaged in dignified, useful and fulfilling work. They ate the same food as the field’s owner and workers, not something discarded as unsuitable. They also experienced the practical reality of being able to eat and feed their families. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his article The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity, explores the nature of God’s generous provision for all in creation, versus the narrative of scarcity, first seen Biblically with Pharaoh monopolising storage and distribution of food due to a coming drought. He challenges Christians to resist the message of consumerism and fear that says there is not enough, but you must have more.
Rather, Christians are to stand in the assurance of a generous and loving God, practicing acts that promote Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God and what he means by that is a public life reorganised toward neighbourliness.’
Dr Katherine Grocott
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