01/02/2018: The article below first appeared in the Daily Record on 4th April 2016 and depicts a forty day End Hunger Fast I did for Lent that year and which I do every year. It serves as an annual reminder that while I and my family have a choice whether or not to eat, it hasn’t always been that way for us and is not that way for thousands of other families across Scotland and the wider United Kingdom. In less than a fortnight, I will embark once again upon this annual pilgrimage and donate the proceeds that I do not spend on food to one of the many foodbanks in Scotland’s doing their bit to end hunger, for however short a time, for families like my own.
For those who have returned this month to observe the second part of the ‘Resolution to End Hunger’ theme I started last month, please be aware that I will post the findings very soon. I intended to do that tonight but two weeks after my last post on this blog, my role with The Trussell Trust drew to a close and conversations have begun with some senior officials about these findings. As a result, I have held back on publicising them until those conversations conclude but I do stand by the belief that these recommendations need to be in the public domain and in the hands of the other change-makers and policy-shapers seeking to end hunger.
[Ewan Gurr interviewing Mhairi Black MP during the End Hunger Fast in 2016]
Living for Forty Days Without Food
On Easter Monday, I was in Arbroath and had a smokie. It may not sound particularly out of the ordinary but, given that it was the most I’d eaten in six weeks, it was a poignant moment.
For more than a decade, I’ve been a foodbank manager and have also helped others set up foodbanks to provide nutritionally balanced food to people who haven’t eaten for days, sometimes weeks. I’m outraged that men, women and children in Scottish villages, towns and cities are forced to make a choice between a warm home and a warm meal.
For this reason, I chose to do an End Hunger Fast and steered clear of food for the 40 days of Lent, as a mark of solidarity with families who face that choice. I donated the proceeds from my fundraiser to my employers – The Trussell Trust, who support families through difficult circumstances. This is my journey.
The First Fortnight: February 10 – February 24
On the first day, one of my colleagues offered me a coffee and, within 20 minutes, I had a headache that lasted for 48 hours. I realised it helps to have food in your stomach to filter the journey of real coffee to your brain. We were running an event at a charity conference in Glasgow’s SECC and heard some stories behind the statistics.
We heard from Alec, who lost his business and ended up homeless. Then from Tara, who slept in a car with her two boys when her marriage broke down. Finally, there was Dave, who experienced mental ill health and had his benefits sanctioned. Each of them used a Trussell Trust foodbank to survive. As I sat there, my belly began to churn and I was reminded why this was the right thing to do.
At the end of week one, my team planned to go to Chop Chop in Glasgow city centre so, rather than watch them tuck into fabulous Chinese dishes while nursing a bottle of Irn-Bru, I opted to stay in a hotel and sleep, which I did, for 11 hours straight.
The Second Fortnight: February 25 – March 10
Seven years ago, when I was running Dundee Foodbank, I appeared on the Channel 4 programme Secret Millionaire with healthcare professional and millionaire businesswoman Roisin Isaacs. Roisin and I have remained close friends and my colleague and I wanted her input on an idea we have been working on.
As we got off the train in a leafy suburb of West Sussex to meet Roisin, I felt like I was about to audition for a role in Downton Abbey. But the meeting was insightful and, that evening, Roisin broke out her finest malt whiskys. Three malts later, I began to feel light-headed and was reminded, three weeks into the fast, that alcohol travels faster on an empty stomach. Lesson learnt.
On Saturday, March 5, The Trussell Trust held their Scottish Foodbank Conference in Glasgow, with more than 130 attendees representing 51 foodbanks across Scotland. I was due to interview Mhairi Black, Westminster’s youngest MP, about her role as a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, where she has had the opportunity to question the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions secretary.
Fasting has sometimes been viewed as a pious act carried out by mystics ion silent reverence. The Bible, however, describes it as a radical act of loosing chains of injustice, breaking constraints to set oppressed people free, sharing food with the hungry, offering shelter and clothing the naked.
I opened the Foodbank Conference by reading this particular verse while stating that Easter reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I added that there are men, women and children who are crying out for resurrection every day and it is our responsibility to ensure they do not starve or die.
Before the interview with Mhairi, we showed a video on a big screen. It was the story of Suzanne, one of her constituents. Suzanne is a middle-class mum who lost her job, had her house repossessed, experienced a benefit sanction and had to give up breastfeeding after six weeks due to malnutrition caused by a lack of calorific intake.
During the interview, I could feel my belly rumbling like the creaking decks of the Titanic as Mhairi said: “As long as I am an MP, I will carry the stories of people like Suzanne with me into the corridors of power.”
The Final Fortnight: March 11 – March 24
A recent article indicated that one of the earliest effects of starvation is that your body begins to consume muscle mass. The only thing ripped about me is my shirt on Boxing Day each year. But, on week five, I was conscious I was a stone-and-a-half lighter and my jeans were hanging on by a belt three notches tighter than usual.
Professor Elizabeth Dowler defines food poverty as: “The inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways.” One of the most jarring aspects of the End Hunger Fast was coming home to the smell of fresh vegetables and sitting in the kitchen watching my wife and three children eat their dinner. Food has the ability to unite us but a fast interrupts the convention of sharing a meal, creating social exclusion and isolation.
I’ll never forget the evening I got home from Renfrewshire Foodbank after meeting Suzanne. Her husband David sent me a text afterwards expressing his gratitude. He told me his family had had the opportunity to sit down and have a meal together for the first time in months. I later met David and he admitted to me that he and Suzanne had lost eight stone in weight over two years by foregoing meals to ensure their two boys could eat.
Some of my friends were outraged that I did not eat for 40 days but I can’t think of anything more outrageous than families not being able to put a meal on the table for themselves and their children. Foodbanks are a symbol of communities pulling together in lean times and food poverty is our enemy.
As long as I am able, I will fast for 40 days every year as a reminder that as long as there are people such as David and Suzanne prevented from having a meal with their children, we need to find ways to end hunger fast.
Gurr, E. (Daily Record) 2016, ‘Foodbank pioneer shows solidarity with the hungry by living for forty days without food’ [Online] Available: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/real-life/foodbank-pioneer-shows-solidarity-hungry-7685478 [Accessed 1st Feb 2018]