No 10: Where next for foodbank use?

Food poverty and Christmas appeals for foodbanks are up this year. The UK needs systemic change.

by Kayleigh Garthwaite

Tuesday 28 November was the launch of the London Evening Standard’s Christmas appeal, ‘Help a Hungry Child’. Pages 8, 9, 10 and 11 were devoted to the issue. The Felix Project is a partner in the campaign, an organisation which “collects fresh, nutritious food that cannot be sold” and the food is then given to “charities so they can provide healthy meals and help the most vulnerable in our society”. London Evening Standard editor George Osborne, without a hint of irony, tweeted:

Today’s @EveningStandard: we launch our Xmas appeal, with @felixprojectuk charity, to tackle hunger in the capital – with your support we aim to reach 120 schools & 50,000 children.

In the editorial, Osborne pleads: “It is dispiriting that in a prosperous, civilised capital so many children do not eat decent, nutritious meals”.

When George Osborne was Chancellor during the period of austerity he and his party instigated, foodbank use rose dramatically as a result of cuts to social security, local services such as children’s centres, and adult social care, among many others. In 2010, there were only 56 foodbanks in the country. By late 2015, that number had risen to 424. In 2014/15, for the first time, over one million emergency food parcels were distributed by the Trussell Trust’s network of over 400 foodbanks, an eight-fold increase from 2011/12. Many of those receiving the parcels were children. All of this was under Osborne’s watch between 2010 and 2016.

Trussell Trust food banks see a 45 per cent spike in referrals for emergency food parcels in the two weeks before Christmas. This year, they have warned that foodbanks may struggle to keep up with demand given the 30 per cent increase Universal Credit (UC) has triggered. Today, Trussell Trust foodbanks in areas of full UC rollout have seen a nearly 17 per cent average increase in referrals for emergency food since April 2017 — more than double the national average of 6.64 per cent. Others have reported much higher growth, with Hastings foodbank experiencing a staggering 82 per cent increase in usage since UC hit their area. Osborne’s campaign cannot even begin to chip away at the ingrained poverty affecting many children every single day.  

Evidence, both statistical and in-depth qualitative work, from academics, frontline workers, third sector organisations, and importantly, from people who are experiencing the cruel bureaucracy of the system itself, is not in short supply. Four million children are said to have faced severe austerity due to rising household costs, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said in their 2017 UK Poverty report. Almost 400,000 more children are living in impoverished conditions today than were four years ago. This evidence has never been more important, at a time when UC is eroding what’s left of the social security safety net.

But despite this, there continues to be a disconnect between rhetoric and reality. A good example of this is Jacob-Rees Mogg MP, who described foodbanks as ‘uplifting’. In doing so, he completely overlooks the wider structural factors that lead people to use them, not to mention the stigma, shame and embarrassment that many people feel at having to walk through the foodbank doors. There is nothing uplifting about not being able to feed your children.

Child Poverty Action Group wrote a response to the Evening Standard’s campaign, pointing out that we need to acknowledge the structural causes that lead to children being hungry in the first place – rising child poverty rates, and the cuts to government spending that have led to this. This star-studded Christmas campaign, backed by Ellie Goulding and Stephen Fry, states that “every child will be urged to drop in and help themselves to a paper bag of supplies donated by supermarkets and wholesalers”. The Felix Project’s chief executive, Hilary Croft, said: “It’s the fact that food poverty is so avoidable in this country that is maddening. [This can be] solved by putting in place simple measures of redistribution — connecting surplus food with people who need it.”

To me, what is ‘maddening’ is the lengthy benefit sanctions, the faulty administration of the benefits system, the continued freeze on working age benefits, and the low paid, insecure work driving people towards foodbanks in the first place (this campaign is incidentally being supported by a £75,000 donation from Deliveroo, whose employment practices are worthy of a blog on their own).

Surplus food is not the answer here. Whilst gaining public support and acceptance that there is a real crisis is important, tackling the root causes should be the priority, not providing yet more sticking plasters to try and piece the broken social security safety net back together. The recently established All Party Parliamentary Group on Foodbanks is a welcome step in this direction, following the first evidence session which had a focus on establishing a ‘foodbank exit strategy’. Until the structural issues driving foodbank use are addressed, foodbank Britain is here to stay.

Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham. Her book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ (Policy Press, 2016), recently won the 2017 British Academy Peter Townsend Prize. She tweets @KA_Garthwaite.