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The poor deserve better

07 March 2014

Britain should not rely on foodbanks to address poverty, argues Richard Bridge. They fail to consider people's underlying needs

IN THE supermarket last week, I was approached by some volunteers collecting for the local foodbank. By the time I left, shoppers were giving generously. Afterwards, I reflected on why people are happy to donate pasta or coffee to the foodbank, but, when asked whether benefits are too generous, the same people often agree that they are.

Foodbanks are a relatively new phenomenon in the UK. The first opened in Lancashire in 1995. The Trussell Trust opened its first ones in 2004, and now has nearly 400.

There is a moral imperative to feed hungry people, and foodbanks are a lifeline to many. But the concern must be that, if we follow the example of Canada and the United States, the institutionalisation of foodbanks will become so embedded in society that they form part of our social security system.

Benefit delays and sanctions, low pay, and payday loans are all contributory factors to the use of foodbanks. Michael Gove's assertion that it is more a case of "poor decisions", like Edwina Currie's suggestion of "rational" opportunists who spend their money on tattoos and dog food, is a crass attempt to distinguish between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, portraying users as "scroungers".

The prevalence of "poverty porn", such as the Channel 4 TV series Benefits Street, only aids the divisive rhetoric in spreading resentment. The issue is far more complex: for instance, food bills have increased by 32 per cent since 2007.


MOST, but not all, foodbanks have a referral system, which means that clients need to be referred from a partner agency that determines whether they have an emergency need. Referrals may, for instance, be made by doctors' surgeries, social workers, advice agencies, or the police.

Although Iain Duncan Smith's suggestion that foodbank use has increased because of rising awareness of them has some merit, their existence helps to mask the structural violence that his welfare reforms inflict on the most vulnerable. Benefit cuts and delays mean that individuals in the UK are unable to meet their basic needs because they are denied a sufficient level of income.

For example, since last April, when responsibility for crisis and community-care payments was assigned to local authorities, many of them have made more referrals to foodbanks (my home city of York has made 144 since April, for instance).

There is a temptation for the authorities to substitute payments to claimants with a referral to a foodbank. Also, local authorities often help to fund the running costs of foodbanks, as it is in their economic interest to have emergency providers available to whom they can refer claimants. Perhaps funding foodbanks is a good use of taxpayers' money. It comes, however, at a social cost.

Research from abroad suggests that those who receive food from a benefactor often feel humiliated and stigmatised. Despite efforts by some foodbanks to address this, the receipt of food in this way can never seem normal.

Furthermore, the loss of dignity that many experience may even intensify, as the state sees this part of the charitable sector as an opportunity for further welfare retrenchment. There are other problems, too, including the ability to cope with demand (donations ebb and flow), the nutritional adequacy of a food parcel, and whether people have sufficient fuel at home to cook.


THE objective should be that all residents can obtain a safe, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximises community self-reliance and social justice. Perhaps this is an unachievable utopia; but groups that seek to grow food that can be used by schools and the community already exist, although sometimes their objectives are more focused on environmental sustainability.

If we search for examples of good practice, an organisation in Toronto, The Stop, has flourished, extending to gardens, kitchens, greenhouses, and farmers' markets. It has transformed itself from a basic foodbank to what Naomi Klein describes as "one of the most visionary movements for justice and equality".

In fostering independence, it also addresses the indignity of charity. It offers community cooking, advocacy, education on food systems, and other services. In doing so, it places community participation at its heart, and provides opportunities for members to forge their own responses to hunger.

Such programmes, however, cost money. This is part of the problem: the uncertainty of community funding often depends on prevailing political perspectives.

The adoption of a social-enterprise model could be self-financing. Although it is difficult to conceive of a network of visionary organisations providing a sustainable quantity of nutritious food on its own, if an organisation such as the Trussell Trust were able to widen its model, it would already have the basis of a nationwide franchised network.


IF WE accept the notion that food is a human right - and the transformation of welfare provision from a "free good" into a competitive marketplace contests this view - then the existence of radical inequalities suggests that political priorities need to be re-examined. If we revert to charity, we fail to challenge the choices made by policy-makers which leave people reliant on foodbanks.

Clement Attlee said that "If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim. . . A right established by law, such as that to an old-age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor man, dependent on his view of the recipient's character, and terminable at his caprice."

So perhaps one approach to the dilemmas of foodbanks is simple. Next time you are in the supermarket and donate a tin to the foodbank, follow it up with a letter to your MP and councillors expressing your outrage at how society is being reconstructed without considering how even the basic needs of children and adults are to be met.

Richard Bridge is a Citizens Advice outreach adviser, and is studying for a degree in social policy at the University of Leeds.

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