We are constantly bombarded with statistics in the media telling us that food bank usage has increased phenomenally, with the Trussell Trust reporting that 1,084,604 people in the UK sought emergency food aid in 2014-15, an increase from 40,898 in 2009-10. The reasons for this increase are also widely reported, with the number one cause being benefit delays at 29.6%. However, what we do hear less about is the consequences of food banks use and food poverty, for those who have no choice other than to utilise the charitable service. It would be easy to assume that those who need the service go, get their food, are no longer hungry, and then carry on with their lives. However, as Riches and Silvasti note, food is entwined in all aspects of life, it is not simply fulfilling hunger; it is social, economic and most notably in my opinion, political. Jack Monroe, noted food campaigner, author and chef uses her own experiences of poverty in the UK to explain how food is entrenched in politics and class, in her talk at the Observers Idea’s Fest in 2014:
As you can see from Jack’s experiences, food poverty in the UK is not simply about food. The politics of food poverty around the UK encompass numerous aspects of people’s lives.
It has been reported by Riches in his 2002 paper that for many people amongst those who are in food poverty in the UK, the social acceptability of acquiring food through charitable food banks is one of the key factors around their use. Not only is this problematic for clients, but also, for those who are in food poverty and need to use the service, but will not do so for fear of judgement. As Jack noted, this arguably is down to our deeply entrenched class systems in the UK, where judgement, stigma and ‘looking down your nose’ at those less fortunate is prevalent throughout some people in society. Garthwaite et al discuss how the government has constructed a discourse whereby the lifestyles of food bank users are put into question, therefore arguably deepening class rivalries.
These judgements are exacerbated by the UK print media, as discussed by Wells and Caraher in their paper assessing media coverage of food banks in the UK. After undertaking analysis of news papers, they found that as usage of food banks has increased, media coverage has too. They report that there has been a discourse surrounding the increasingly reported problem is that those who are using the services are undeserving, free loaders, and are taking the opportunity to get their hands on free food. Of course, we know this to be untrue, however, the power of print media has the ability to drive opinion, political discourse and of course judgement. In addition, those who are actually using food banks are often not actually interviewed within the media, therefore the voices of those who need to be heard the most, are not. The topic of media driving opinion and manipulating judgement is a widely discussed issue, for example, in Owen Jones’s well renowned book ‘Chavs’ (i), he discusses how class hatred towards the working classes of Britain is now represented in every form of media, and has become part of culture. Some have argued however, that media opinion and the discourse surrounding poverty is changing, describing the current crisis as unacceptable and scandalous; is the media becoming more sympathetic? Perhaps the dominant discourse has changed from ‘Benefits Britain’ to ‘Food Bank Britain’.
Uncertainty and Food Security
Along with feeling the pressures of stigma, the uncertainty and anxiety faced by those in food poverty and food bank users are also crucial. The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank charity in the UK, has a referral system, whereby those who need to access services can see a for example a doctor or social worker, and receive a voucher for three days emergency food; you can have up to three consecutively. This of course, does not ensure food security, defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (2010) as:
“when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle”
Although food banks have access and support through other services provided within, such as the money management scheme , long term food security is not definitely ensured for users. As Riches reports, this leaves people with feelings of uncertainty, particularly if they have used three vouchers consecutively and are unable to access any more. This of course, may exacerbate other underlying issues. Garthwaite et al, conducted an ethnographic study in Stockten-On-Tees food banks, and found that there was a high prevalence of mental ill-health discussed by the participants involved. This is also supported by Perry et al, that found that a high number of people referred to the food bank were mentally ill, although this was not their main reason for referral. Of course, a lack of food security could potentially intensify these issues, and further increase vulnerability.
Although so far, I have painted a very bleak and depressing picture of food poverty in the UK, it must be noted that the use of food banks has had very positive effects on some peoples lives, through establishing a sense of community and support networks. Lambie Mumford discusses in her 2013 paper how participants in her study found comfort and support within the food bank networks, therefore relieving people of the stigma they may have felt through using a food bank. In addition, Garthwaite et al reported that some participants felt a sense of community and inclusion through visiting the Stockten-On-Tees Centre.
Overall, with current austerity measures, it is clear that problems of food poverty, and the need for food banks to be present will prevail. The Trussell Trust and other charities provide an excellent service for those who need it, but it is time for the government to step up to the mark and accept that food is a political issue that needs centrally addressing, and not part of the “Big Society” rhetoric that we hear so much about.
(i) Jones, O. (2011). Introduction. In: Jones, O Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso. p.6
(ii) The Trussell Trust. (2015). More Than Food. Available: https://www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do/more-than-food/. Last accessed 27th January 2016.