Bread of Life in Broken Britain: Foodbanks, Faith and Neoliberalism

Charles Roding Pemberton 
ISBN: 978-0334058960 
SCM Press 2020
Paperback 196 pp £19.99 
Pastoral Review bookshop £16.00
Given the explosion in UK faith-based food aid over the two last decades, and with predictions that UK food insecurity is only going to get worse in a post-Brexit future, it is extraordinary that so little attention has been given to it as an urgent theological issue of the day. Bread of Life in Broken Britain is therefore a hugely welcome attempt to seriously engage with the faith-based nature of much of the emergency food aid effort we have witnessed in recent years by the Christian churches and other faith groups. It offers an insightful, if at times particularly Anglican, theological response and guiding vision, which, until publication of this well-researched book, has largely been regrettably lacking.  

As foodbanks sit at the crossroads of faith, politics and economics, Pemberton’s book is necessarily interdisciplinary – he helpfully aims to straddle disconnected worlds by providing a Christian narrative on foodbanks to the secular world of social scientists and activists, whilst simultaneously offering a political and economic analysis of foodbanks for Christians. His weighting of material, however, seems to favour the latter ambition more.  

The book is divided into five punchy chapters. It begins, as I would hope, with the actual experiences of foodbank users themselves. Pemberton’s book is commendable, not least because it does not theologise from afar, but is rather a practical theological response grounded in the author’s two years of recent volunteering at a foodbank. He consistently writes with real sensitivity and concern for the struggles of people who end up accessing foodbanks, often as a last resort when all other coping mechanisms have been exhausted, setting his experiences within the broader field of social research. He charts the ‘complex and ambiguous’ foodbank phenomenon, and the recent social and economic trends that have propelled foodbanks to flourish in a neoliberal context.   

It is not until we reach Chapter 3 that Christian theology as a resource is explored in any depth, and it is here, for me, that the book really shines. Pemberton offers a beautiful synopsis of why food is endemic to the Christian imagination, and a theology of food as participatory, gift and sacramental, which serve as the hallmarks by which to assess Christian practical initiatives like foodbanks. He does not utilise Catholic social thought as a resource though, and I felt the absence of its particularly luminous principles if applied to this issue. Drawing on the important contributions of Williams and Allen in their critiques of foodbanks, his conclusion in the subsequent two final chapters, that foodbanks are ‘too problematic, too partial, too compatible with neo-liberalism’ to be an adequate expression of the richer Christian tradition, does indeed need to be heard. And though such a conclusion may be challenging for some, there is simultaneously no desire to denigrate such charitable effort by the author. Indeed, by confining his investigation to only the franchised foodbanks model, perhaps a valuable opportunity was lost to examine other alternative Christian food models, that could offer more theologically faithful ways forward for concerned Christian activists and practitioners. But a relatively short book of this nature cannot, of course, cover all the bases.

The established policy suggestions Pemberton endorses as more fruitful directions in Chapter 5 will be familiar to many – for example, universal basic income and altering individual patterns of food consumption – and while there is nothing surprising in such prescriptions, he does offer a Christian perspective to these wider policy debates that is sorely needed. The success of the book for me was in leaving me with a more hopeful sense that there is a way for food production and environmental concerns to be more compatible than the current insanity of the existing status quo, with its associated UK food insecurity crisis, suggests.  

Philomena Cullen, theologian and consultant, Killarney, Ireland