Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why foodbanks?

The enormous growth in the number of people going to foodbanks over the past five years is one of the major achievements of the Coalition Government.

One month before the Coalition came to power in 2010, there were 54 foodbanks, today the number has increased to 423. Some 41,000 people went to foodbanks n 2009/10, compared to 913,000 being given three days emergency food and support last year (330,000 were children).

In contrast over the same period the number of billionaires in the UK has gone from 53 to 100. The richest 1,000 people now have £450 billion of the wealth – an increase of £150 billion in the past three years.

This scenario of more people going to foodbanks whilst the super-rich get richer has come to represent the true vision of David Cameron’s Big Society.

The demand for foodbanks has grown at the same time as the government has been cutting away the safety net of the welfare state. This has been done to the accompaniment of the mood music in the media, that those on benefits are scroungers and skivers.

The danger moving forward is that foodbanks get institutionalised, effectively becoming a charitable alternative to the welfare state.

Some 8,318 tonnes of food was donated by the public in last 12 months. 30,000 people have volunteered at foodbanks over the past year. 27,000 frontline care professionals such as doctors or care workers have vouchers to issue for foodbanks.

The growth in the number of people going to foodbanks at a time when the economy is recovering, provides further proof that those living in poverty are not sharing in the benefits of the recovery. Notably, a quarter of those attending foodbanks are in low paid work.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said: “People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system. They are drawn from the six million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low-paid or bitty employment.”

The Trussell Trust, which runs the foodbank network across the UK, 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 for 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.

David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said: “Substantial numbers are needing help because of problems with the social security system but what's new is that we're also seeing a marked rise in numbers of people coming to us with 'low income' as the primary cause of their crisis.


“Incomes for the poorest have not been increasing in line with inflation and many, whether in low paid work or on welfare, are not yet seeing the benefits of economic recovery. Instead, they are living on a financial knife edge where one small change in circumstances or a ‘life shock’ can force them into a crisis where they cannot afford to eat.”

A report 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 recommendations concerning changes to the benefits system, to stop delays and the implementation of the living wage to counter low pay. However, it is the third recommendation to create a new generation of “super” food banks that is most controversial. The new foodbanks would combine food aid with welfare advice and advocacy. This network of foodbanks would bring together the existing players with supermarkets and the state.

The report suggests the supermarkets could redeploy some of this food and play a much more hands on role in helping out with the foodbanks.

This suggestion goes to the heart of the dilemma, a step toward institutionalising foodbanks, 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. There have been an abundance of low income jobs created as part of the economic recovery – sound familiar?

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 Graham, who criticises plans for super foodbanks as only addressing the supply side of the question, thereby recommending “a vanguard role for the charitable food industry and food waste in the battle against structurally caused food poverty.”

The institutionalisation of food banks leads to the depoliticisation of the issue of hunger. “This can only lead to the long-term institutionalisation of food banking and diminish political appetite for progressive reform,” said Graham, who claims that in  Canada, the food charity industry has fostered the de-politicisation of hunger, so it is now a matter primarily for community and corporate charity, and not a human rights question demanding the urgent attention of the state.

“Today, Canadian public perception of food charity is that it should take care of domestic hunger. Governments can look the other way,” said Graham, 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.

Former Leeds West MP John Battle, who has been doing some research work on foodbanks in Leeds, warns that “foodbanks could become institutionalised as an alternative to the welfare state. “

He believes that the real issue is low pay, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. “This cannot be allowed to go on, with the poor effectively being left to pick up the scraps from the rich man’s table,” said Mr Battle who pointed out that the ‘Feeding Britain’ report found many of those using foodbanks were on zero hours contracts.

He insisted that the implementation of a living wage and maintaining of the welfare state is the direction in which things should be heading.

Notably the tone of the government has changed toward foodbanks, with initial scepticism and even hostility – a potential £22 million from an EU fund was rejected in 2013, that could have gone toward this work – now seemingly turning to broad support.

The net result of simply expanding the foodbank network is that Churches and charities can continue to feel good about helping out the poor in a purely charitable way, whilst the corporates gain a good helping of positive PR from their growing involvement in these ventures. In the meantime, the numbers going to foodbanks and living under the poverty line continues to grow. The issue has to be one of justice, put very simply, the right to eat and live.

It would be a true irony if a virtuous charitable endeavour like foodbanks evolved into a back door means to further emasculate the welfare state and build the low pay economy.

*Read on how foodbanks have become institutionalised

20/2/2015 "In the vanguard of feeding Britain - are foodbanks being used to undermine the welfare state?" - see:

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