A political slogan that does not seem to have appeared during the election campaign is one declaring “Britain isn’t eating.”
Perhaps, a poster showing the hundreds of thousands trooping into foodbanks in order to sustain themselves and their families should be adorning bill boards across the land.
It should be a cause of national shame that in a country that boasts more than 100 billionaires, more than one million people require food aid. A situation that can hardly be said to be for the common good.
Let’s remembers, the proliferation of foodbanks is a relatively recent development. Five years ago, there were 54 foodbanks being attended by 41,000 people, today there are 1,000,000 people going to 400 plus foodbanks.
These figures are according to the Trussell Trust, which runs the national foodbank network.
The untold story is just how much food aid is being provided beyond the Trussell Trust, largely by charitable bodies and churches.
A recent report by Leeds Diocese Justice and Peace Commission found that more than 50% of its 88 parishes are providing food aid. In Birmingham, there are 60 foodbanks operating out of churches. “Half of those responding had provided food to the Trussell Trust foodbank but half as many again give food through the St Vincent DePaul Society,” says the Leeds Diocesan report.
The Trussell Trust statistics show that 45% of food bank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions and 22% cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis.
So a major reason why so many people are going to foodbanks is low pay and the way in which benefits are being administered.
This should not be surprising as much of the so called economic recovery in the UK has resulted from the creation of low paid insecure jobs. These are typified by the 1.8 million employed on zero hours contracts and the fact that two out of five jobs in recent years were defined as self employed. (Figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that of the growing number of people who work for themselves, 35 per cent earn less than £10,000 a year.)
What is needed is properly paid secure work.
The danger though is that as the welfare state is dismantled amid the creation of a low pay economy, food aid becomes institutionalised. This is what has happened in North America.
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 – sound familiar.
The result in Canada has been that right to eat has been effectively taken off the political agenda. It has become a matter for the charitable sector. Foodbanks have become a service industry largely run by the charitable sector. Supermarkets have joined in, exploiting an opportunity to gain good PR by donating food.
This is not a path that the UK should want to follow back to Dickensian times. Following its conference in February on food aid, Leeds Diocese committed to hold would be MPs to account during the general election campaign. They have been asking those who seek to represent them in Parliament what they would do to address the question of why Britain is not eating.
There are many MPS who are only too happy to be associated with the warm charitable glow of foodbank charity, fewer ask why in a country as rich as Britain, are so many struggling to feed themselves.
The failure to feed the people of Britain is an appalling indictment of the past five years of government, it is something that needs to be urgently addressed by whoever makes up the next administration.