Thursday, 18 December 2014

The growing hunger crisis in Britain demands a response that goes beyond simply providing bigger and better food banks

Christmas is a time of good cheer and consumer excess for many but in this rich country it is also a time when the growing levels of poverty become most visible. Nowhere is that more so this year than with the growing numbers of people going to foodbanks.

The Trussell Trust, which runs the nationwide network of foodbanks, reports 913,000 going to foodbanks over the past year – an increase of 129,000.
The Trust point out that there have been 500,000 people coming to foodbanks in the six month period between April and September this year, 38% more than for the comparable period last year.

Currently, 45% of food bank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions and 22% of the 500,000 that came cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis.
So foodbanks are flourishing. The question though must be what should their role be moving forward?
An excellent report funded by the Church of England and compiled by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty has credited the foodbanks for staging “a social Dunkirk.”
The report, Feeding Britain, makes three main recommendations, first that there are changes to the benefits system to ensure people are not thrown into poverty. 
Second, that low pay must be addressed, which means the living wage being implemented across the country (£7.85 an hour and £9.15 in London), thereby putting more money into people’s pockets.
The third suggestion is the creation of a new generation of “super” food banks, which combine food aid with welfare advice and advocacy. This network of foodbanks would bring together the existing players with supermarkets and the state.

It is this third recommendation that some see as a step toward institutionalising foodbanks as a permanent fixture, rather than seeing them as a temporary measure to deal with a hunger crisis.
The story of foodbanks in Canada provides a salutary lesson.  Foodbanks were introduced in Canada in the early 1980s in what was perceived as a tough economic time.

There are now 700 foodbanks in Canada, providing help to 800,000 people. The number has increased by nearly 100,000 over the past six years – as the country has come out of economic recession. The foodbanks have taken on a role previously undertaken by the welfare system.
Writing in the Guardian, Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, tells how foodbanks have become a second tier of the benefits system in Canada. “The sad fact is that in Canada, with its 30-year track record of increasingly corporatised food charity, recent national data shows that one in eight households or 3.9 million individuals (11.6% of the population) are still experiencing food insecurity,” said Riches, who criticises the Feeding Britain report for only addressing the supply side of the question and thereby recommending “a vanguard role for the charitable food industry and food waste in the battle against structurally caused food poverty.”
He argues that this can only lead to “the long-term institutionalisation of food banking and diminish political appetite for progressive reform."
Riches argues that in Canada public perception of food charity is that it should take care of domestic hunger. “Governments can look the other way,” said Riches, who suggests that a right to food should be entrenched in domestic law backed by international statute, then the obligation to deal with hunger would be put fully back under the responsibilities of the state.

There has to be a concern than in Britain that the proliferation of foodbanks  is not at the behest of the demise of the welfare state. It is right that Churches and charities should continue to meet the need of those unable to feed themselves. However, they must persistently challenge as to why, in such a rich country, that boasts more than 100 billionaires, a million people need to visit food banks.

The challenge for the Church in particular is very clear, it must provide a justice based response to the poverty crisis, not just charity. This means not just stepping up to provide a network of bigger and better foodbanks but also to ask what needs to be done to end the poverty that makes this service required in the first place. Measures like the living wage and addressing benefits provision issues are no doubt part of the solution but there also needs to be a fairer distribution of wealth. There need to be clear steps taken to close the gap between the richest and poorest in society, so that increasing numbers at the poor end are not forced toward charity based band aids like foodbanks. These charitable safety nets cannot replace the welfare state which has been underpinned by a basic right that people do not go hungry in our society.
 * Independent Catholic News - 18/12/2014
* Morning Star - 19/12/2014

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