Foodbanks have saved Harvest celebrations from nostalgic irrelevance – by Simon Cansdale

I’ve been doing Harvest assemblies and celebrations for 22 years. I think they’re much richer and more authentic now, and Foodbanks are partly responsible.

Nostalgia and guilt

Harvest celebrations used to be overshadowed by nostalgia and a vague guilt that we were losing connection to the land.

People used to turn up at urban and suburban churches with boxes full of seasonal veg, some homegrown, some from the supermarket. Church looked great on Harvest Sunday but quite a lot went in the bin or in the vicar’s  and churchwarden’s kitchen ‘for soup’.

Schools used to send students out with a bag of tins and an oversized marrow to surrounding streets, ‘to give it to some old people’. Some were grateful for the visit, some had rather nice cars parked in the drive, more were bemused. Now the whole exercise would be a safeguarding horror story.

Competitive parenting

And thank goodness the days of competitive parenting at Harvest is over.

I used to sit through harvest assemblies with children processing to the front with their Harvest Gift. Each one more beautifully and exotically wrapped, with yards of cellophane and ribbon, pots of deli ragu and out-of-date water biscuits. The gifts were essentially useless with children learning only that my box needs to be bigger and shinier than my friend’s. Vulgar, horrible, good riddance.

It is partly Foodbanks that have made Harvest better.

Many schools local to me now give directly to Chiltern Foodbank at Harvest time. I’ve been down to food bank on the High Street several times this week, and each time it was merry mayhem with boxes everywhere.

Renewed confidence

This growing connection with, and honouring of, food banks is so much richer than a nostalgic return to a mystical 18th century we all live on the land scenario. Food banks have brought a renewed confidence that Harvest gifts actually go where they are needed: into the hands of those in real need. The guesswork is gone.

We are almost over our nostalgic reluctance to bring only autumn vegetables and fruit to church and school at Harvest time. Thank goodness. Here in Chesham one wonderful person organised for apples to be pressed and bottled with all proceeds to the Foodbank, including the apple juice.

We all realise that if we fell on hard times (and in Chesham alone the community is supporting about 50 people a week, so it’s possible), we wouldn’t want a tired carrot and a couple of courgettes, we’d want toothpaste, soap and food we can store and cook.

Talking about poverty

Foodbanks have made local poverty and its causes a talking point and brought it out into the open. We should all be grateful that we see our own community a little more clearly because of foodbanks.

For us in the Chilterns, it’s largely families who are supported, and some of them have one or both parents at work. Our schools and churches are better places for us knowing this and resolving to organise things better, and challenge the causes of local poverty.

Food banks help create links that can last throughout the year, rather than random one-off guilt gifts in October. The same people who send tins of food and nappies to school at Harvest also put an extra few things in the box at the supermarket, knowing that it will be used wisely and locally by our incredible array of volunteers.

Most people who are involved in foodbanks wish that foodbanks didn’t need to exist, though we are massively committed to making them welcoming and generous. But to the long list of brilliant things that food banks are achieving we should add this – they are making Harvest better, brighter, truer.

Simon Cansdale is Team Rector at St Mary’s Church, Chesham

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