Food Banks and Local Authority Assistance

Volunteer sorting donations of food at Trussell Trust
Volunteer sorting donations of food at Trussell Trust – ©Alexandra-Smart; Approved for external use

You are in the tinned goods aisle. So you look at your shopping list, then decide to toss one or two extras into the food bank basket at the exit. Many kind-hearted people in Kent have been doing just that, aware that, especially during the pandemic, the numbers of needy people may have increased. 

In fact, at one Kent food bank the usage increased 172% during the pandemic. The top six items needed are: tinned meat, tinned fruit, UHT milk, tinned veg, dried rice or pasta, and pasta sauce. 

When Emma White, manager at the Family Food Bank in Ashford, gave a talk at a local church recently, she said that some of the people applying to the food bank were middle class people, shocked that they had got into this crisis. During Covid, a food bank which used to supply 200 food parcels per month had to accelerate to hand out the equivalent of 200 food parcels per week. 

Most of Kent Is Covered

The network stretches across most area of Kent , see map of distribution centres. This needs volunteer drivers to redistribute food across the network. Sometimes they get a big donation of surplus from a food firm, but sometimes it is too big to use.

There was one occasion when a warehouse offered tons of clementines about to expire, because of the shortage of lorries to distribute them commercially. But the vans and drivers available to the food bank were also insufficient for such a bonanza, so they politely declined it.  

They are also starting a system of the Food Pantry, where the customers can come and select what they want and also socialise. And they are looking to further the work of the Family Food Bank in Tunbridge Wells and other areas of Kent where the need is great. 

The Trussell Trust, which started in 2000 with a food bank in Salisbury, now supports about 1,200 food banks across the country. Many operate in local churches or are run by volunteers from local faith organisations. 

Not Just Giving but Advocacy

However, if one is sceptical of the sustainability of meeting needs by using bands of volunteers, it is good to note that the Trussell Trust also does advocacy and supports research into poverty.  The three things they are advocating in 2021 are: 

  1. To extend the Emergency Assistance scheme to local authorities until the end of the the year (this refers to the £ 63m announced by the Chancellor in June 2021, to be disbursed to local authorities and spent within 12 weeks) 
  2. To continue with the Ministerial Task Team that oversees such emergency social problems
  3. Budget for £ 230 m per year for emergency relief to be delivered via local authorities.

Localising Is Good

Localising services sounds good. Didn’t this seem obvious when it appeared that local public health officials were better at combating Covid spread than a national call system? But the political story on this for the past decade is that a push towards localisation happened under the influence of the LibDems in the coalition government. However, once the Tories were governing alone again, they cut resources to local authorities remorselessly – by 17%.

Consequently the discretionary social fund budget changed to a grant to local authorities, but not ring-fenced. So some hard-pressed local governments naturally spent this money elsewhere. So the £63m emergency fund was barely replacing cuts, and could not be used to set up a sustainable local system as it had to be disbursed within 12 weeks.

Trust Does Research

The research report on the Trussell Trust website comments: 

“the de-prioritisation of local welfare assistance by the Government appears to have affected the ability of some local authorities to respond rapidly and flexibly to the challenges posed by Covid-19 and maximise the impact of the new funding made available.”

There are noteworthy differences across the United Kingdom on local authority (LA) expenditure for emergency needs: 

NationApprox. PopulationAverage £ spend per person
England55.9 m£ 0.74
Wales10.5 m£ 3.37
Scotland5.4 m£ 6.49
N. Ireland1.8 m£ 7.31

One has to ask: are the English just richer or stingier than the other nations? 

The Trussell Trust research notes there are roughly three different ways in which the local authorities dispense emergency funding: (italics are quotations) 

1. Crisis-only  

This scheme is crisis-benefit only, and consists of:

  • Crisis support – supermarket vouchers and fuel vouchers for pre-payment meters
  • Help for staying in the community – white goods and furniture
  • No further support or advice is offered through the scheme

Annual spend: £ 200,000  example from a South East LA.

2. Wrap-around 

These schemes incorporate a crisis-benefit element but are also closely linked to other services aimed at crisis prevention, such as welfare benefits advice, debt advice, and income maximisation support. This can include coordination between statutory services as well as voluntary and community services. The result is that if someone comes via any channel to seek crisis support, they are supported not just to meet the immediate need, but are given additional support to provide a longer-term solution for the issue.  

Not easy to cost as the services are spread around, but one estimate for a North West LA is: £3.1 million (and £1.7 million for other elements).

3. Out-sourced model 

The LA disbursed all the emergency funding to other voluntary and community organisations. 

In many of these areas it is only more recent injections of government funding which has made this possible, such as through the £ 63 million from DEFRA in summer 2020. Before then, it is likely that many of these areas will not have had any local welfare offer in place, not even basic grant funding for local VCS providers.

£ 200 000 example also from the South East LA.

SE Favours Least Resilient Models

The two models prevalent in the South East seem to be those that are least resilient if the unexpected happens, such as a pandemic. LAs are unlikely to know who are the most vulnerable as they have not been interacting with them or collecting data. The barriers to independent living can crop up suddenly, like the closure of libraries which shut down computer facilities that some had been using for applications.

Give Us the Facts

An income-based national system, like Universal Credit, does not cater well for those in insecure employment or even for some on poorly recorded self-employment. And those who are newcomers to the UK are often under NRPF (no recourse to public funds). Collecting data might seem rather intrusive, but the justification is the same as for the census – to provide better services for your type of person.  

Trust Calls on Government to Decentralise Crisis Support

It is noteworthy that the Trussell Trust, even while supporting more than 1,200 foodbanks, is campaigning for a ring-fenced system of national government disbursement of £230m each year to the local authorities for emergency assistance to those in crisis.