Foodbanks do incredible work, providing food for people who genuinely might not otherwise eat. The aim of this blog is not to negate or discredit their achievements, but to encourage thought about some of the implications of the foodbank system. It can be difficult to imagine that something with such good intentions could possibly have bad consequences. However, it is important that both the benefits and the disadvantages of foodbanks be considered equally.

What are foodbanks?

The concept behind foodbanks is simple: to provide food for hungry people who cannot afford to eat. How foodbanks work varies between foodbanks, but generally they follow the simplified process in the flowchart below:

how foodbanks work

Foodbanks were developed to combat ‘food poverty’, a term closely related to food insecurity, defined as inability to obtain an adequate, nutritious diet. In the UK food poverty is a huge problem, with one in every four households struggling to eat regularly.

Unfortunately the government does not track foodbank usage in the UK, however we can get an idea of how many people rely on foodbanks by looking at data from the Trussell Trust, the largest foodbank network in the UK with 427 foodbanks. In the past year alone Trussell Trust gave out 1,182,954 emergency food parcels, a record high. While this number is shocking by itself, it does not account the food given out by the 651 ‘independent’ foodbanks that also work in the UK. This high demand for foodbanks is only increasing with time:

Trussell Trust Timeline
Number of emergency 3-day food parcels given out by Trussell Trust over time (source)

The Good

The moral principles behind foodbanks are irreproachable, and their success as a humanitarian venture is evident from the huge uptake of their services. They are a perfect example of local communities helping people to feel safe and included.

Foodbanks do more than than give out food: they raise awareness of issues such as hunger and poverty. They also serve as a signpost to a host of information and services, including money management, family care, nutrition and cooking classes.

I think that the good of foodbanks is best articulated by the people who use them. The following are quotes by Trussell Trust users:

Without the foodbank, I don’t think I would be here today

The foodbank gave me faith that there are people who understand and who you can trust

Always knowing the foodbank is there puts your mind at rest a bit; knowing you can go there and get support is brilliant

The Bad

The good of foodbanks is fairly self-explanatory, however the bad is much less obvious. I have identified three ‘bad’ aspects of foodbanks:

1. Foodbanks are condescending. There is a social stigma to ‘needing charity’. In our capitalist society, people’s worth is often measured by how much money they earn. Being in a situation where you cannot afford to feed yourself or you family becomes a source of embarrassment. One Trussell Trust user described her feelings, “to not know if you’re going to be able to feed your children is shameful and degrading“. To make matters worse, opinions have been publicised in popular media that foodbank users attend for ‘free food’, because they spend all their money on smoking and drinking, or because they ‘don’t know how to cook’. In reality, the most reported reason for attendance is delayed benefit payments. These preconceptions not only discourage people from getting potentially life-saving food, but also encourage inequality.  The foodbank process can be interpreted as the rich giving their unwanted food away to those who cannot afford to be picky, encouraging feelings of inadequacy and social hierarchy.

2. The food in foodbanks is not necessarily appropriate. While foodbanks may aim to provide nutritionally balanced food, this is often not feasible. Donated food has to be non-perishable, so usually comes in the form of tinned or dried food: it is very difficult for fresh fruit and vegetables to be stocked. While this is not a big problem if people only use foodbanks in emergency situations, the increasing long-term reliance on foodbanks in the UK implies a need to address this issue. Beyond their limited nutritional content, food parcels can be inappropriate for a number of reasons. Past criticisms have included poor cultural sensitivity, item selections that cannot realistically be made into meals, and items that require cookinggiven to people struggling to afford gas and electricity bills. See if you agree with these criticisms by having a look at the contents of typical foodbank parcel from the Trussell Trust:

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3. The success of foodbanks might be increasing food poverty. In cruel irony, the fact that they have been so successful in reducing hunger is itself causing a serious problem for people living in food poverty. Foodbanks have become a ‘corporatized’ industry, so widespread that they are now the dominant solution to food poverty. The ‘normalisation’ of foodbanks as an essential part of our food system is said to be inevitable, but what are the implications of this? It has been argued that foodbanks ‘de-politicise’ food insecurity. In other words, their success deflects the need for states to debate the issue of food poverty and take structural action to solve it.

The Ugly Truth

The aim of this blog was to present what I think of as the ‘ugly truth’ of foodbanks: that they are a form of symptom relief being sold as a cure. Foodbanks fulfil their intended purpose of emergency food provision, but are not a sustainable solution to food poverty. It’s like giving paracetamol to fix a broken leg: you may ease the pain temporarily, but that isn’t a reason not to put on a cast.

In the interests of ending this blog on a slightly happier note, however, I put forward the idea that even if foodbanks are not going to save the world from hunger, they do actively encourage positive relationships between people, and build a knowledge base upon which future generations might be able to develop a more sustainable and less unequal food system.