Food package picA food package, by Lottie Stoddart

In the UK, the number of people using food banks has reached a record high. Designed to be a short-term solution for those in emergency situations, they have become a service upon which many rely on long-term. This highlights a gap in welfare provision that food banks, and other charities, have been forced to fill.

During my final year at university, I volunteered at one of the 428 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK.  I thought that the service we were providing was unequivocally good and if you had told me that we could have been standing in the way of a better solution, I would have laughed. However, by providing a ‘solution’ do food banks allow those who are responsible for this crisis to avoid accountability? And in turn prevent a long-term solution from being found?

The Problem

A Trussell Trust report this year revealed that it gave out almost 1.2 million 3-day food parcels between April 2016 – April 2017, with 437,000 of these going to children. This is a phenomenal increase from 26,000 in 2008/09 – less than 10 years ago.[1]

food bank use
Trussell Trust

Trussell Trust food banks make up less than a quarter of the total number of food banks in the UK which stands at over 2,000. Therefore the crisis is worse than the Trussell Trust data alone suggest. With such a drastic and sustained increase in food bank use, food insecurity in the UK is clearly rising.

Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways as opposed to stealing, scavenging or using emergency food supplies.

Why Do People Use Food Banks?

People have no choice but to use food banks for a variety of complex and interrelated reasons. Low income, is the main cause of food bank referral. Benefit delays and changes, debt, disability and mental health issues, rising food, housing and energy costs alongside stagnating wages also play key roles.

food bank reasons graph
Trussell Trust

Recent government cutbacks have hit some of the poorest areas hardest. Liverpool, one of the poorest areas in the country, has lost 58% of its central funding since 2010. Liverpool District B, the most deprived area in the country, suffered an £807 loss per person compared to the wealthiest area, Hart district in Hampshire, which only lost £28 per person.[3] Consequently, Liverpool has the highest number of food banks (37) of any UK city except London. This is more than double the amount in Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol and Glasgow and it is almost double the amount that Birmingham has for a population that is twice as large as Liverpool’s.[4]

Benefit delays and benefit changes are the reason for 43% of all referrals. This has been directly linked to the government’s new Universal Credit scheme. The scheme has a minimum waiting period of 6 weeks which is a significant cause of food bank use. Such long waiting periods for people who have little or no alternative income is for many exacerbating an already dire situation. In the past year, the use of food banks has increased 16.85% in Universal Credit areas, more than double the 6.64% increase in non-Universal Credit areas.[5] One woman, after 6 weeks of waiting and still no benefits, felt she had “been left to starve by the DWP.”[6]

An Out-of-Touch Government

The drastic increase in food bank reliance, particularly in relation to government cuts and the rollout Universal Credit, highlights the role the government play in the increasing food insecurity crisis.

Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Moggs recently commented that increased food bank use is “rather uplifting” because it shows how compassionate we are. While Dominic Raab, Minister of State for Courts and Justice, stated that people use food banks, not because of poverty, but because of occasional “cash-flow problems”. If those in government are so out of touch with the problem, how will it ever be resolved?

The government is responsible for its own lack of awareness. They choose not to create or use an official food insecurity definition.[7] They choose not to set up a routine measurement of food insecurity in the UK. This lack of regular data collection is one reason why the true magnitude of the problem remains hidden which in turn allows for government inaction.[8]

Has Food Insecurity Become Normal?

Yes, and it is a major problem.[9] The normalisation of food banks has played a key role in this. Virtually every city and town has food banks. They stop things getting really, really bad – people do not starve to death in the UK. As they have become part of the fabric of our society, little shock factor surrounds them. They are largely accepted.

Additionally, the issue of food insecurity seems to only, briefly, takes centre stage when a report publishes new data. Even then, the media and public outcries are seldom directed towards those responsible.

This new normality simultaneously enables the government to get away with not tackling the problem and shelters us as a society from the harsh reality that millions of people are being failed by the current system and struggling to access a fundamental human right.[10]

The Future

Food banks and volunteers do an amazing job. But they are doing a job that they should not be responsible for. Ordinary people and charities should not be relied upon to feed the 8.4 million people living in food insecure households. By normalising food insecurity and helping hide the extent of the problem, food banks are unintentionally standing in the way of a better, long-term solution. That said, they must continue to operate until this solution has been implemented.

We need a better, more equitable welfare system. This would help tackle food insecurity at the root. It would allow food banks to focus on short-term crises rather than long-term poverty. For this to happen, the government must be made accountable and forced to act via public pressure. But first we, as a society, must stop seeing food insecurity as normal and start being outraged by it.

food shelves pic