For many people, the idea of food banks is intrinsically linked with Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. For those unfamiliar, in his condemnation of modern England, Loach tells the story of Katie, a single mother of two, who has had her benefits sanctioned for arriving late to a Jobcentre appointment. Cash-strapped, Katie goes to a local food bank where she presents her voucher, before being steered around the food-laid shelves by a volunteer. Partway through however, overcome by hunger, she desperately cracks open a tin of beans and shovels a handful into her mouth. The scene is a distressing performance of a woman in crisis. But in Britain today, Katie’s visit to the food bank is not a rare event . Between April 2017 and March 2018, the Trussell Trust – the UK’s largest food bank provider – distributed over 1.3 million emergency food supplies. In fact, the food bank Katie visited is a real one in Newcastle – the volunteer who helped her really works there, the extras all people who used it.
Before 2010, most people had never even heard of food banks. But over the past decade they have become emblematic of the political and economic changes Britain has undergone. Coming into power in the wake of the Great Recession, the Conservative-led coalition government announced this time to be the “age of austerity”. Driven by a neoliberal ideology of Big Society, rather than raise progressive taxes, the government focused on cutting public spending to overcome the deficit. But alongside this,  use of the Trussel Trust food bank network has increased by over 2,000 per cent. In 2010, there were only 56 food banks in the country. By 2018, there were over 2,000.
Currently, low income accounts for the biggest single – and fastest growing – reason for referral to Trussel Trust food banks. However, the other primary reasons are benefit delays, sanctions, and changes that create immediate income crises. The introduction of the Welfare Reform Act in 2012 has seen drastic changes made to the provision of benefits within the social security system. These included reforms to Housing Benefit (commonly referred to as a “bedroom tax”), the Social Fund, Employment and Support Allowance, child support and, most significantly, the introduction of Universal Credit. Analysis of food banks that have been in full Universal Credit rollout areas for a year or more shows that these projects experienced an average increase of 52% in the twelve months following. In particular, criticism has centred on the time it takes for claimants to receive their first payment (35 days), leaving some struggling to pay their bills in that period. Set against a backdrop of rising living costs, more people are being forced to live in “food deserts” – locations where poverty, poor public transport and a dearth of big supermarkets severely limit access to affordable and fresh food.
The provision of informal food aid is nothing new; churches and charitable initiatives have long provided such assistance in local communities. However, where previously this help was typically for the homeless, now it is for low-income families with children. A 2018 report by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute found that they make up over half of all food bank users. Dr Rachel Loopstra, the lead author of the report, said: “Low-income families with children have experienced significant reductions in welfare entitlements in recent years, and entitlements will be reduced further for low-income families given changes to Child Tax Credits and the ongoing benefit freeze in the context of rising living costs.” As Katie shows in I, Daniel Blake, by skipping meals to feed her children, food budgets are commonly perceived as the most flexible element of household spending in times of financial insecurity. In comparison, the Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that middle-to-higher income households have escaped remarkably unscathed from austerity measures leaving one to wonder whether George Osborne’s claim that “we’re all in this together” could have been any hollower.
Yet despite report after report showing the clear connection between austerity and food bank usage, the Conservative government has been resolutely defensive.  Embarrassed by the revived use of foodbanks as the classic counter-argument to claims of an economic recovery benefitting all of Britain, they have sought alternative excuses to dismiss the rise.  Lord Freud, the former Minister of State for Welfare Reform, suggested that this was a supply rather than a demand led issue; that if food banks are set up, people will use them. What this completely ignores is the fact that the majority of foodbanks users will only seek a referral as a last resort and do so under the shame of the attached stigma. Meanwhile, David Cameron suggested that increased usage was due to Jobcentre advertisement that previous governments did not allow. Yet, according to the Trussel Trust, only 2-5% of people who come to them are referred by benefit advisers from Jobcentres. Other politicians have found fault with the Trust itself who produce many of the reports.  Iain Duncan Smith, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who is responsible for the changes to the welfare state, argued that the Trust were merely seeking publicity to promote their own growth. That is despite it maintaining transparent accounting practices as a not-for-profit social franchise.
Worse still, the government has fuelled negative public opinion of benefit “scroungers” popularised in the “poverty porn” of mainstream media.  Michael Gove suggested that food bank users were themselves to blame, guilty of making lifestyle decisions that showed they were “not best able to manage their finances.” Similarly, MP Dominic Raab sparked outcry when he characterised “the typical user of food banks not [as] someone who’s languishing in poverty” but as someone who simply “has a cash flow problem episodically.” The sweeping generalisations made, such as by Ian Duncan Smith, that “people are going to food banks because they get divorced, ill or addicted to drugs” shows a disturbing lack of understanding by key government figures of the complexity behind the circumstances that lead to food bank referral.
At the same time, the government has sought to encourage the normalisation of foodbanks by co-opting them as an example of a local sense of community. The welfare state is seemingly content to be structurally dependent on charity provision – effectively incorporating volunteers as informal partners. Rather than addressing the bureaucratic inefficiencies and inadequate funding of his reforms, Ian Duncan Smith insisted that he “welcomes” foodbanks. Prior to his resignation, he had even planned to draft job advisers from the Department of Work and Pensions into food banks. However, The Trussell Trust has advised their food banks against entering into contractual service level agreement with local authorities, arguing it would jeopardise the non-judgemental environment in which they operate.
Even worse is that food shortages have been exacerbated by this normalisation of foodbanks. The issue has fallen off the radar at a time when donations are needed more than ever. A possible answer to the problem could be to redistribute food waste. Given 1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted by the food industry each year in the UK, it sounds like a win-win solution. But recycling food waste does not address the cause of food poverty. Instead, we risk institutionalising foodbanks as has occurred in the USA and Canada. A sign we are already headed this way became apparent in February when ASDA announced plans to invest £20 million into The Trussel Trust and fellow food aid charity FareShare. Such initiatives may be able to relieve short term crises, but they cannot meaningfully tackle deep-rooted issues. What is more, given ASDA’s removal of permanent food bank collection points in its stores in 2016 (that were only returned following a backlash) and general record of low pay, the supermarket’s motives remain questionable.
So what is the solution? Well, the government may finally be starting to take responsibility for the problem. Secret proposals were reported by The Guardian that ministers plan to investigate whether policies have influenced foodbank use. In her conference speech Theresa May declared she was “ending austerity.” But where the extra £19bn a year to enable this is going to come from is still being decided. With regard to the welfare system though, focus needs to be on improving the administration of the benefit regime. In the last week, Universal Credit rollout has been delayed yet again. Originally meant to be fully installed by 2017, a litany of hitches means that the programme is now not expected to be fully complete until the end of 2023. But Conservative backbenchers and anti-poverty campaigners are rightly lobbying hard to restore the £2bn removed by George Osborne back into the system.
This is more than just an issue of policy. The government must uphold the human right to food. As a society, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has enough to eat.
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