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Foodbanks are merely a short-term solution

23 September 2022

They are a last line of defence against hunger — but a different approach is also needed, argue Frank Field and Andrew Forsey

THE poorest people in the country are facing a triple threat to their living standards: rising energy bills, rising food costs, and rising rents. A failure to counter this threat — which, given its size and ferocity, will require a response that is both bold and radical — will consign all too many of those people to destitution.

While the new Prime Minister will need to lead from the front, by taking direct action to bring down inflation and mitigate its worst effects, each of us will need to take our own responses on to a totally different level if our country’s overall strategy is to be successful in shielding the poor from destitution.

This triple threat has emerged in the wake of a decade that has brought the rapid growth of the foodbank movement in Britain. Many of the churches and people of good will who run foodbanks are now contemplating the need to cut back on the size of food parcels or turn people away, as donations dwindle and shelves become bare. A strategy that relies on more and more foodbanks, to hand out more and more food parcels, is doomed to failure.

Foodbanks will continue to have a necessary part to play as a last line of defence, in providing temporary relief to those in a critical situation who have fallen through the cracks in statutory services. It is this function that foodbanks have always said to us that they wish to fulfil, as opposed to supplying ever larger quantities of food to growing numbers of people whose low incomes, bad fortune, or both constantly leave them unable to buy their own food, and place them at risk of becoming dependent on food parcels — or not eating at all.

A GROWING number of churches and community-led organisations are, in partnership with Feeding Britain, seeking to minimise the size of this group, and, in the process, ease at least some of the strain on the foodbanks that form that last line of defence.

They are doing so by working with us to establish affordable food clubs, like pantries and social supermarkets, which function as ethical institutions that harmonise individual needs and self-interest with the common good. People sign up to each club in return for a weekly contribution — anything between £3 and £8 — which entitles them to a range of fresh, chilled, frozen, and long-life goods (with a value of between £10 and £20) that they can choose for themselves.

Under this form of mutual self-help and co-operation, the weekly contributions help each club to acquire the stock that it needs to maintain the range and quality of goods each week. The relatively low levels at which those contributions are set help to safeguard people’s freedom and independence to continue buying some or most of their shopping at their regular retailer.

Increasingly, clubs are building on this core offer with on-site programmes of meals and activities for families during school holidays, and social gatherings for pensioners, as well as immediate access to services such as welfare rights, debt advice, housing officers, and credit-union accounts that maximise people’s incomes and make life more manageable while they simultaneously save money on food.

Crucially, this contributory approach provides both dignified support to people before their struggles develop into crises that bring the need for foodbanks and emergency vouchers into play. It is also a first stepping-stone away from crisis for those who have recently been destitute and have already received vouchers.

HERE, then, is one path that is open to civil society — not just in the weeks ahead, to counter the immediate threat facing the poor, but also for the next decade, as we try to eliminate hunger from our shores through a combination of prevention and relief.

Forty years ago, when the social evil of hunger came to the fore in Canada and the United States, a relatively small number of affordable food clubs emerged alongside foodbanks. They proved themselves capable of shielding from destitution working families, as well as those who had just lost their jobs, and thereby preventing a further lengthening of queues outside foodbanks. Yet those clubs largely disappeared when both countries moved out of a recession. The queues outside foodbanks duly lengthened, and have remained long ever since.

What a steady stream of churches are telling us is that the emergence and gentle embrace of affordable food clubs in Britain — filling that large gap between retailers and foodbanks — gives us a fighting chance, at least, of avoiding a similar fate.

A mega-package of economic support from Liz Truss, which sits alongside the ongoing evolution of community-led food programmes which we have described, might just enable the country to turn the tide on hunger.

Lord Field of Birkenhead is a trustee, and Andrew Forsey is the National Director, of Feeding Britain.


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