This week it was World Food Day, a day of action dedicated to tackling world hunger. In the UK, food banks are fast becoming (or indeed have already become) an ever more normalised and visible part of austerity Britain. Most supermarkets have donation points for collecting pet food for rescue cats and dogs. Now, right next to these collections for abandoned animals are donation points with stickers plastered on them pleading people to ‘Please donate food’.
In 2004 the Trust ran only two food banks. Today, there are over 400, but overall they run 1500 food bank centres. And this isn’t taking into account the many independent food banks that help thousands upon thousands of people every day, with the Independent Food Aid Network finding there are at least 712 further independent food banks and food style projects across the UK. In the last financial year, the Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. Of this number, 436,938 went to children. A report out this week revealed food bank volunteers carry out 4.1 million hours of unpaid work every year. The value of the work has been estimated at £30 million a year if the volunteers were paid the national living wage.
Many people are happy to offer charitable assistance to food banks but this should not be to the exclusion of asking why, in one of the richest countries in the world, more than one million emergency food parcels were handed out last year. But we need to remember that behind every tin of food donated is a person with a reason for being there, and we need to listen to them. For the last four years, I’ve been a volunteer and a researcher at a Trussell Trust food bank in central Stockton, North East England, finding out how a food bank works, who uses them, and why.
My research, as well as that of other academics, charities and frontline professionals showed that a major reason for people using food banks was the impact of welfare reform. It was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons that brought people through the food bank doors were ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy.
Despite the clear connection between the cuts to social security and food bank use, government ministers have consistently refused to admit to a link between the two, instead choosing to dismiss food bank use as a lifestyle choice of those who are unable to budget properly or those who would rather spend their money on 20 fags, a flat screen TV and three litres of strong cider. Addiction is seen as a ‘lifestyle choice’ – but only if you are the ‘undeserving’ poor. Jacob-Rees Mogg MP recently described food banks as “uplifting”; in doing so, completely ignoring the wider structural factors that lead people to use them, not to mention the stigma, shame and embarrassment that many people feel at having to walk through the food bank doors. There is nothing uplifting in not being able to feed your children.
Food banks should not be allowed to be a permanent part of our society. The long-term goal should be shutting food banks down because they are not required anymore, not creating bigger and better versions of them. Food banks cannot simply let the state withdraw from its responsibilities. They must be seen as shocking and outrageous if we are to ever get rid of them. Above all, we must confront, challenge and question the popular and pernicious idea that people living in poverty are the architects of their own misfortune.