Thursday 12 November 2009

A Self Sustaining Egalitarian Redistributive Food System

Last week, whilst working with 16-25 year olds in Supported Housing, I witnessed an act of such waste and profligacy that could only occur when it is other people’s money that is being spent. Let me explain, the thirty or so residents that live in this complex of small flats have to share four kitchens between them. That is, four or five residents share a considerably large kitchen. In each of these kitchens there is a large fridge freezer. They were all working perfectly well, apart from never having been cleaned or defrosted, but then that is par for the course working with most of these young people. They probably think it is someone else’s job. I can understand why they are confused, there are already several cleaners that do most of the work around the project.

To say the kitchens were a shared space almost conjures up images of disadvantaged youths working in solidarity to cook cheap and nutritious meals and dividing up cleaning and cooking responsibilities in an equitable fashion. This was not the reality or anything like it for the simple fact that the young people I work with are so profoundly solipsistic in their motivations that terms like responsibility, solidarity and community are not only words that some of them would struggle to read, but also hollow terms that hold no significance in their lives.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, in fact, I am. They did share food with each other almost every day. Sharing was so intrinsic to their value system that no one ever asked anyone else could they borrow anything, they just took it. However, in the few weeks that I have been working at this project several new residents are taking issue with this obviously perfect system of equitable distribution. They don’t seem to understand that this egalitarian distributive food sharing scheme works perfectly, even if it seems contrary to common sense. A bit like communism really. I mean look how great both Cuba and North Korea seem to be doing.

How the system works is on the day you get your Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support or Disability Living Allowance or any combination of benefit payments, after you have bought some super strong skunk weed and cheap alcohol you then make your way around to the local Iceland and stock up on nutritionless artery averse ready meals. Whilst shopping, it helps to have in mind what your fellow residents like to eat, as it is they who will be eating most of what you buy anyway. The fact that they also shop in Iceland means your margin of error will be slight. It also almost guarantees that you will get the food you want when you are stealing, erm, I mean sharing their food.

This is a perfect system as long as no one complains and everyone buys some food and is open to sharing. It is both an egalitarian self sustaining non-hierarchical redistributive exchange system as well an unfettered free market where Adam Smith’s invisible hand is hard at work in the pantries and refrigerators of unemployed young adults. It is a rare system that appeals to both far left anarchists and libertarians. There is only one slight snag with this model, as soon as even one resident questions the system i.e. complains, or uses the word ‘stolen’ then the whole system implodes. Complaints tend to arise when there is nothing left to borrow from your fellow residents. As with many supposed perfect economic models they are impeded by human beings and their behaviour.

As several new residents were averse to sharing or being robbed, depending on your perspective, the manager decided to deal with the issue. In each kitchen there was a large fridge freezer of about six foot. It had ample space for the cornucopia of cheap processed foods that provided our residents with the calories they needed to sit about stoned and/or drunk for most of the day. These fridge freezers worked fine, they just needed to be cleaned and defrosted and the residents needed to learn not to steal from each other. Instead, the manager decided we should buy each resident a small refrigerator without an icebox for their room. So, we did just that and bought thirty one Amica small fridges at a rough cost of four thousand pounds. The large fridge freezers in the kitchen were thrown out even though they all worked perfectly. We then spent roughly one thousand eight hundred pound replacing these with seven large freezer units. All of this money came from public funds. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it was judicious spending or not, as Im trying to be a lot less judgemental about things these days as my employers have informed me that judging a.k.a having an opinion based on standards is somehow negative.

The one thing I don’t understand is that won't the residents still steal each other’s frozen goods from the brand new communal freezers? Did management not consider this when they were deciding how to waste thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money on how to police the shared pantries and kitchens of our young discarded on to the welfare state?