Over the last 20 years the UK has seen a boom in the number of foodbanks providing emergency food supplies to its population and the number of people in need of them. In the financial year 2016/17 the Trussel Trust, an NGO which coordinates the UK’s largest network of food banks, provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, an increase of 73,645 (6.6%) since the previous year. Furthermore, in areas where the government’s new social security benefit universal credit has been rolled out early, emergency supply provision increased by as much as 16.9%(1). These supply packages went out to people judged to be in a state of emergency by healthcare and consultancy professionals and demonstrate a growing proportion of the population would without these packages be slipping into a state of food insecurity.
Food Insecurity: the inability to consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty one will be able to do so (Dowler & Oconnor 2011) (2)
To further bring home this point, in the year 2000 a study noted two reported food banks in Britain, but warned ‘we may very well find that food banks become as prevalent here as they are elsewhere’. With close to 1000 food banks now operational across the country, the severity food poverty in the UK is beginning to resemble countries which have traditionally had much less comprehensive welfare schemes like Australia and the US(3).
What is has caused Britain’s food bank dependency?
Many academics have argued that rises in food insecurity have been caused by welfare reforms following the financial crash. Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford writes that reductions in public spending in the wake of the crash and harsh social security reforms have overseen a systematic reduction in welfare provision(4). Exacerbating the impacts of these welfare cuts are extremely volatile food prices resulting from symptoms of the corporate, industrialised, global of the food regime like rising oil prices and environmental disasters increasing the cost of transport and production (5)(6).
These welfare reforms are ongoing and continue to undermine the poorest in society’s capacity to afford food. Trussel Trust data has shown that areas in which Universal Credit (the governments newest iteration of these cost cutting welfare reforms) has been rolled out early have seen a 16.9% increase in the amount of emergency food supply packaged they have distributed, almost 3 times as much as areas in areas on the old system. These increases have been explained by the delays people on the scheme have experienced in receiving their benefit, leaving them with no emergency funds to left over to afford food (7)(8). Financial Journalist Paul Smith investigated these delays, in particular the 7 days ‘waiting period’ before someone who applies for the benefits can receive a payment, finding that they were motivated by savings in administrations costs (9).
The Issue Raised By the Proliferation of Food Banks to meet hunger needs
The increase in Britain’s food insecurity is a serious problem. Its a problem caused by a government’s shirking of its responsibilities to provide adequate support and affordable food for the poorest of its people. Food bank’s are filling the gaps left by cuts in the governments welfare spending, providing sometimes life saving support to millions of societies most vulnerable people which is in no uncertain terms a heroic achievement.
However, the proliferation of food banks has raised some concerns for many academics. Dr Sue Booth writes in Australia where food banks are a far more established solution to food insecurity (10). One concern she puts forward is that in Australia the key problem food banks seem to be addressing is the efficiency of the food system, and the big businesses who profit from it, rather than food security itself. Booth explains that ‘big food’ system is extremely inefficient and that its inefficiency is becoming extremely expensive in Australia where landfill costs have increased 100 times since 1990. Australia’s ‘Good Samaritan’ legislation provides companies with tax breaks in return for donations to food banks. Booth arguers that the only real motivation behind these companies donating this food is to reduce industry costs of dumping, transport and administration. However, in doing so the company gets to present itself as fulfilling its corporate social responsibilities, enjoying the rise in profitability enjoyed by creating such a perception (11) and reducing the public outrage at the inefficiencies of the global food system. Booth goes so far as to say that there is a danger of such beneficial food bank system for big business becoming ‘primarily interested in self-perpetuation and food system efficiency, and not equity’ (10).
With the growing prominence of food bank’s as a solution to food insecurity in the UK we will have to be extremely vigilant to prevent this model developing. This is especially important because food banks do not address the causes of poverty insecurity only its symptoms. As a result, having a food bank in every town in the UK would not be in the interests of those suffering from food insecurity, but of big businesses profiting off the structural inequalities of the global food system and a government interested in ever increasing welfare cutbacks.
Evolution of the food bank: The time for Advocacy
While food banks are not a long term solution to food insecurity, as a short term response to the dire need of the desperately food insecure they provide an life saving service. They address only the symptoms of food poverty and essentially let the government off the hook for welfare reforms which otherwise would be costing lives. As a result, the food bank movement cannot limit itself to providing emergency food supply. Instead it must also evolve into an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of the failures of the governments social policy and its role in exacerbating the nations food insecurity. Such an evolution could put extreme pressure on the government to change their policy and begin to change their approach to food-insecurity.