Food Banks – the culture wars

Food bank donations
Food bank donations – photo by Produce Marketing Association, licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“People are telling us they’re skipping meals so they can feed their children. That they are turning off essential appliances so they can afford internet access for their kids to do their homework.” 

Emma Revie, Chief Executive, Trussell Trust

“A lot of people I’ve seen use food banks but still go to the pub and still smoke. It’s all about priorities but a lot prioritise the wrong things, ie alcohol, cannabis, leisure, food, rent in that order.”

pih57 on Twitter

What is Household Food Security?

In 2009, the World Summit on Food Security stated that the “four pillars of food security are:

  • Availability – having sufficient quantities of food available
  • Access – having adequate income of other resources to access food
  • Utilisation/consumption – the appropriate use of food based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation
  •  Stability – the stability of the first three dimensions of food security over time.”

So, a household is deemed to be food secure when all its members, at all times, have access to enough food for a healthy and active life, with no fear of hunger or starvation.

Access to safe and nutritious food is a health determinant. If nutrition is inadequate it impacts children’s health, development, education and life chances. There is growing concern about the numbers of adults going without meals in order to feed their children causing exhaustion and ill-health.

A Food Standards Agency survey, Food and You 2 – Wave 3 found that, between April and June last year, 15% of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were food insecure (which means they were facing either reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, or disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake) and 4% reported visiting a food bank in the past 12 months. However, these numbers are growing considerably. Poverty charity Turn2us found that about 2.5 million people would be unable to afford food after the £20 universal credit uplift was scrapped.

Food Banks

Food Banks distribute food and household items to those who struggle to afford to buy enough to eat and other essentials such as toilet paper, sanitary items, shampoo, toothpaste etc. These items are donated by members of the public. The food consists of staple items; much of it tinned or dried to ensure long shelf life.

Money donated to the food bank enables the organisers to buy some fresh food as well as plugging gaps in donations. Sometimes a food bank will put out a request for certain items they need. Although the Trussell Trust is the largest organisation providing food banks, there are many others in towns, villages, universities, schools and hospitals. 

According to the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) there are at least 2 565 Trussell Trust and Independent food banks in the UK but this does not include food banks run by the Salvation Army, churches, schools, hospitals or universities. They also estimate that there are also more than 3 500 independent food aid providers operating outside of the food bank model. That is a lot of food aid being distributed to people outside our social security system.

Attitudes to Food Banks

The Trussell Trust founded its first food bank in 2000 due to a local need but it started to expand substantially from 2011.

The Covid pandemic and cost of living crisis has accelerated an already rising use of food banks. Although there is much evidence that families with two working parents and professional people such as nurses and teachers are having to accept aid, there are still many people who will not accept their necessity.

“Yep, maybe those using them should give up sky TV cigarettes and alcohol and get a job, and stop expecting the government to pay for their choices in life to have 5 children by different fathers, make you (sic) bed and lie in it’

Mike Willden on Twitter

Some Conservative MPs have an ambivalent attitude towards food banks. For example, Natalie Elphicke and Dominic Raab have been photographed visiting their local food bank for a Christmas picture tweet. Mr Raab was unabashed considering his assertion on Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC show: “The typical user of a food bank is not someone who is languishing in poverty; it’s someone who has a cash flow problem episodically.” Mr Raab was then thin-skinned enough to block Victoria Derbyshire on Twitter for quoting him verbatim!

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s famous intervention: “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are.” He added “The real reason for the rise in numbers is that people know that they are there and Labour deliberately didn’t tell them.” A rather disingenuous comment as the need for food banks increased dramatically after the austerity measures took hold under the Conservative government.

There is a common belief that people are using food banks because the organisations have expanded their operations. People are simply taking advantage of free food because it’s there. However, this doesn’t take into account that many food banks require a referral from a professional such as a GP, social worker, or citizens advice bureau.

Government minister Rachel Maclean recently joined the debate suggesting that people struggling with their bills should “take on more hours or even move to a better-paid job.” She conceded that those already working three jobs and still needing to use a food bank probably wouldn’t benefit from her advice. She also didn’t suggest who would do all the low-paid work when people had moved to the better-paid jobs. Someone would have to do them and those people would have to eat!

IP Detailing & Valeting on Twitter bluntly agrees with Rachel Maclean: “The problem with today’s society isn’t who happens to be in power, it’s because society has devolved into a self-entitled, self-centred, snowflake bandwagon riders. Can’t afford something?? Get off one’s backside and earn it. No excuses!! Go and work harder like most of us. Simple.”

The most recent MP intervention into the food bank debate came from Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield, who told Times Radio, “There are generations of people there who simply haven’t got the skills to budget properly and go shopping and do a proper weekly shop, like we did back in the day.”

This caused a great deal of controversy especially from the food campaigner Jack Monroe. She gave her followers a master class on how difficult, time consuming and depressing it is if you must budget to the last penny. She also made the point that   prices are jumping and this makes budgeting to the last penny more and more difficult.

Even Martin Lewis expressed an opinion: ‘MP Lee Anderson today said “You can’t just keep throwing money at a problem, eventually you’ve got to try and get to the root cause of a problem.” Sadly in a cost of living crisis where the poorest have income lower than their min outgoings the root cause is a lack of money’. Mark, hiding behind a Churchill avatar, replied: ‘Or spending money on the wrong things. Phones..Sky..Netflix….the list goes on’.  

 Recently, there have been media stories of nurses, teachers and university staff using food banks. The article in The Mirror entitled ‘Low-income nurses forced to queue at food banks to feed families after finishing shifts’ produced interesting comments. Many were sympathetic and shocked that food poverty is impacting on those we would consider to be relatively well-paid. What does that mean for people earning even less? However, others considered it inconceivable that those with reasonable salaries well above the living wage could be in difficulties. Some said they personally know people who are less well paid are not in the same situation so it can’t be true. Others simply disbelieved the article assuming it was fabricated and that the struggling nurses are ‘mythical’. So, what are the facts?

The Nursing Notes and Nurses United survey 2021:

The survey found the startling evidence that 39% of the nursing profession are missing meals to be able to pay their bills and over 11% of them had missed a rent or mortgage payment. A higher number of BAME nurses are missing meals (61%) or borrowing money from friends to get by (45%) , the difference being attributed to fewer BAME nurses in senior positions. 64% of nursing staff admitted to working overtime to pay bills. 84% admitted to regularly leaving work more than an hour late with 81% saying this was usually unpaid overtime. 30% of nurses said that they intended to leave the profession within the next year, with factors such as poor mental health (11%) or poor work-life balance (15%) being the most common reasons. 

With at least six hospital trusts setting up food banks or food voucher schemes for hospital staff, why do so many people refuse to accept the proof presented to them?

Causes of Food Bank Use

A 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ): Austerity, sanctions and the rise of food banks in the UK, Rachel Loopstra and colleagues, paints a different  picture. The problems aren’t caused by overspending on iPhones and Netflix. Food banks are far more likely to open in local authority areas with higher unemployment rates, greater welfare cuts and local authority budget cuts. Highest levels of food bank use have occurred where there have been the highest rates of benefit sanctioning, unemployment and cuts in welfare spending. Since 2015 we have experienced the Covid pandemic and we now have an energy and cost of living crisis. The picture is now even more complex.

Broke Not Broken, which runs a food bank in Perth and Kinross, has doubled its opening hours to meet demand and is helping more working people including families with two working parents.

“Before Covid, the reason most people used us was benefit sanctions. That’s not the case nowNow pretty much every referral is here because of low incomes or because they’re waiting to be moved on to universal credit, which takes a minimum of five weeks.”

Annie McCormack, Chair of Broke Not Broken

 The Future?

We all know the old joke about a big city motorist who stops in the back of beyond to ask an elderly local for directions. The answer is, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here!” Covid with the cost of living crisis feels very much like this. If I were you, I wouldn’t go into a pandemic, an energy crisis and a war in Europe after years of austerity and cuts to public services. However, we are where we are and where we are is broken.

One of the reasons we are in a political quagmire at the moment is that we are a divided country. Many have nailed their colours to certain masts and have closed their eyes and ears to facts. The reason that over two million people are in receipt of food aid is not because they are wasting money on iPhones and Netflix but because the benefit system is not fit for purpose and incomes are too low to cope with the cost of living crisis.

The inability to afford food is one step away from destitution. If our MPs are telling us that food banks are a sign of a compassionate society, that we can live for 30p a day on pasta and just get a better paid job then the political will to even start to solve this problem is not there.

“How can this be right in a society like ours? And yet food banks in our network tell us this is only set to get worse as their communities are pushed deeper into financial hardship. No-one’s income should fall so dangerously low that they cannot afford to stay fed, warm and dry. There is still time for the UK government to do the right thing.

“We are calling on the UK government to bring benefits in line with the true cost of living. As an urgent first step, benefits should be increased by at least 7%, keeping pace with increases in the cost of living. In the longer term, we need the government to introduce a commitment in the benefits system to ensure that everyone has enough money in their pockets to be prevented from falling into destitution.

“By failing to make benefits payments realistic for the times we face, the government now risks turning the cost of living crisis into a national emergency”.

Emma Revie, Chief Executive of the Trussell Trust