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
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
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
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