There has been rapid expansion in food banks over the past two years triggered by growing numbers of people unable to feed themselves or their families as a result of rising living costs, shrinking incomes and welfare benefit cuts. This ever increasing need for food banks is a damning indictment of this government’s failed economic approach.
The boom in Britain’s food banks reflects a number of worrying and complicated trends. As well as rising unemployment, more people are seeing their pay frozen and hours cut at work. For the past couple of years, charities have been warning that a shift to a less generous way of uprating benefits in line with inflation, combined with rising food and fuel prices, would make life more difficult for people claiming benefits. Then there is the start of a new, harsher benefits regime, a result of which will be more claimants having their payments sanctioned – cut or stopped entirely – if they miss appointments. At the same time, the state system of a social fund and crisis loans is being wound down, so emergency cash payments from the welfare system for those deemed to be in extreme need are now exceptionally difficult to procure.
The government spent £230m on crisis loans in 2009-10. But under the Welfare Reform Act, responsibility for administering this spending will be devolved to 150 English councils. Local authorities are preparing to invest in charity-run food banks to cope with an expected deluge in demand for crisis help from low income families hit by welfare cuts, raising the spectre of depression-era US “breadlines”. However they will be sharing a pot of money set at 2005 budget levels – which could be less than half the 2009-10 figure, so would obviously seem to be inadequate at best and this money will not be ring fenced – meaning that councils can spend some or all of it on other services if they wish.
Cuts next year to the social fund, which provides emergency aid to vulnerable people, mean that from April 2013 many councils will no longer be able to provide cash help to applicants. Instead they will offer “in kind” support such as referring clients to food banks and issuing electronic food vouchers.
It is very unlikely that plans to refer crisis loan applicants to food banks will solve the problems, let alone the root cause. Experts say the experience of food poverty in the US and Canada, where charity food assistance has become a significant element of the welfare system, shows that while food banks are popular with volunteers and, however well meaning their aims and intentions are, they can be inefficient, unreliable and fail to address the underlying causes of food poverty, such as low pay.
Liz Dowler, professor of food and social policy at the University of Warwick, said: “Despite their apparent ‘win-win’ appeal to some councils, food banks conceal realities of poverty and hunger. They let the state off the hook from their obligation to ensure all have the means to live, and from showing political leadership to grapple creatively with poverty.”
Everything is pointing towards the fact that this country is on the precipice of a food poverty crisis. A spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group said: “It’s clear that this is an early-warning indicator of how bad things are starting to get for poorer families and how bad things are going to get in future. This should be setting alarm bells ringing for the government.”
Alas, those in power, seem to have placed mufflers on those bells with government ministers regarding food banks as exemplars of the “big society” approach to social problems and many Conservative-run local authorities welcoming the move to provide local crisis assistance, which ministers say go “to the heart of localism and the big society agenda.”
The government’s complacency towards food poverty will most probably become more exasperating by inflation hitting its lowest level in nearly three years in September. Experts predict that soaring energy bills and rising food and petrol costs will send inflation back up again in the coming months, ramping up the pressure on households. And the situation is further compounded by the damage wreaked by the dismal summer of 2012 on UK harvests that will inevitably push food prices up further. In these austere times, with food banks feeding the hungry, that is going to hurt. Prof Richard Tiffin, director of the Centre for Food Security at University of Reading. “It should be a major warning that climate change is increasingly having a global impact on the food supply. If the problems in Russia, the UK and the US this year were combined with a failure of the Indian monsoon, we could see a major global food crisis that would have an enormous impact on food prices and badly affect poor people in the UK and around the world.”
Trussell Trust is a charity that provides three days’ worth of emergency food to people in the UK who are at crisis point and currently receive government funding. Trussell said it had been approached by the Welsh government and a number of local authorities in London to discuss “deliverable and practical” emergency food assistance part-funded by the social fund.
The trust has said it does not object to taking state funding in principle but its food banks were already helping thousands of people referred to them by councils and welfare advisors after being turned down for crisis loans. Chris Mould, director of Trussell Trust, said the move could be risky for the charity, which was not designed to provide large scale welfare assistance. He was also concerned that the public would be less likely to give food if the trust was seen to be delivering a service regarded as the responsibility of the state.
The trust have also warned that the string of energy price hikes announced by providers recently could mean more people turning to it for help. Chris Mould said: “Every day we meet parents who are skipping meals to feed their children or even considering stealing to stop their children going to bed hungry. It is shocking that there is such a great need for food banks in 21st-century Britain, but the need is growing.”
Along with Trussell Trust there are many other charities and volunteer services that provide food bank services. Some have seen a 100% increase in the numbers of people coming to them for a free or cheap, meal. Four out of 10 charities said their budgets had been slashed as a result of funding cuts. Around a third said these cuts have made it harder for them to provide meals, and one in six said they may have to abandon providing food altogether.
FareShare, a charity that supplies millions of free meals to charities, food banks and breakfast clubs using food donated by supermarkets, said it could not keep pace with demand. They said the food it distributed in 2011-12 contributed to more than 8.6m meals, benefiting an average 36,500 people a day via 720 organisations that deal with people in food poverty. Its long-term plans are to triple the numbers of people and charities it supplies.
Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of FareShare said: “Every piece of evidence we have got is that demand will only increase over time as more people lose their jobs and living costs go up. Even if the economy improves there will be a considerable lag before that trickles through to individuals who use the services the charities support. We are forecasting that we will see growth for at least the next five years.”
The Salvation Army, whose churches issue food parcels on an informal basis, said its biggest distribution point, in Keighley, West Yorkshire, was so inundated this year it had to temporarily restrict food parcels to people referred by local charities and health professionals.
Along with charity shops and payday loans companies, food banks have become one of recession Britain’s high growth sectors. Originally set up to support homeless individuals, food banks report they increasingly serve families hit by benefit cuts or unemployment, and low-income working households who can’t make ends meet.
Food banks are thriving not just in Britain’s most deprived areas but in some of its wealthiest areas, like Poole. Our seaside town boasts some of Britain’s most expensive properties but in April 2012 a local food bank supplied food parcels to nearly 300 people – more than twice as many as in April 2010, with the extra demand driven by low income working families. Poole food bank manager Lorraine Russell said that: “Before, the primary reason (for needing food parcels) was benefit cuts or delays, but now that’s been overtaken by people on low incomes. We used to get very few low-income people, but now that has taken over.”
Even though food banks can provide a little low-level nutrition in a crisis for three days, they were never designed to cope with months of malnutrition due to inadequate levels of income or benefits. No guidance about financial need will be issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose ministers, along with every member of the cabinet, have abdicated the primary moral duty of a civilised government for ensuring their poorest fellow citizens have enough income to buy a healthy diet. This damages the economy; it creates massive costs for the health service and lost time at work. Nutritionists frequently remind us that Britain was better fed from 1940 to 1945, a time of war and far greater economic crisis than the present.
Through international treaties, the UK government is already committed to ensure an adequate standard of living. They have a responsibility to provide resources so people have a minimum threshold of food, clothing, shelter and social security. However, with all the funding cuts to public services and the Welfare State, it is abundantly clear that they have no intention of fulfilling this obligation. So we, the people, have to draw a line, stand up against the food poverty injustice – along with all the other issues – and demand an end to the cuts.
KEEP ON KEEPING ON
RESIST – PROTEST – STRIKE
Where in the UK do people rely most heavily on food banks? – Guardian
Breadline Britain: councils fund food banks to plug holes in welfare state – Guardian
Demand for food parcels explodes as welfare cuts and falling pay hit home – Guardian
Foodbank: our biggest client group now is people on low incomes – False Economy
Food banks are a symptom of failure – Guardian
Food banks: a life on handouts
Charity food banks serving record numbers – Guardian
Rising food prices are climate change’s first tangible bite into UK lives – Guardian
Lobster bisque at the soup kitchen: how a charity is redistributing food – Guardian
House of Commons – Oral Answers to Questions – Work and Pensions – Monday 23 January 2012 – Hansard