As high-end steak restaurants offer £4,500 bottles of wine to those most fortunate, food bank use continues to rise – a stark comparison that illustrates the social inequalities currently rife in the UK.
Food banks (not to be confused with community/religio-soup kitchens, a historic part of UK society) shot to particular political prominence in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, their use often used as a measure of the challenges faced by the UK’s least fortunate.
The notion of Conservative ‘Big Society’, in which the state reduces its intervention in the lives of citizens, encouraging both ‘active citizenship’ and charity to help those whom the state does not, has many opponents. While employment figures are higher than ever, opponents point to low or no pay increases for workers. Zero hour contracts inflate unemployment statistics without guaranteeing working hours and challenges to Universal Credit are often linked to the rise in food bank use. Regardless of political position, the fact that members of our communities need the help of food banks to feed themselves and their families is a travesty; we must surely do better.
Food banks are run by many different bodies but mainly individual charities and religious or community groups. Set up as centres within communities, they are staffed largely by volunteers and stocked with non-perishable food donations. Care professionals such as Health Visitors and school staff can issue food vouchers to those in need, which enable recipients to collect a three-day nutritionally-balanced parcel, made up of ingredients such as cereals, soups, pasta and rice, tea, coffee, canned meat and vegetables. Some food banks offer fresh fruit and vegetables as well. On top of this, food bank staff can offer support to individuals through one on one meetings and courses, providing advice on solving their personal financial crises.
The Trussell Trust is one such provider; founded in 1997, it has grown into a network of over 1,200 food banks. According to the trust, 913,138 emergency food parcels were handed out to those in need in 2013/14, rising to 1,583,668 in 2018/19 (this year, more than half a million went to children).
Chief Executive Emma Revie outlined the Trussell vision: ‘Ultimately, it’s unacceptable that anyone should have to use a food bank in the first place. No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security. That’s why, in the long-term, we’re urging the Government to ensure benefit payments reflect the true cost of living and work is secure, paying the real Living Wage to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty.’
When surveyed, 33% of food bank users gave the reason for their visit as ‘benefits consistently not covering the cost of living’. Furthermore, with the roll out of Universal Credit, users have spoken of long waits to receive their initial payments (another key reason cited by food banks users).
Fare Share, with centres all over the UK, do things slightly differently. Working directly with the UK food industry, they take surplus, fresh and in-date food, distribute it to food centres such as homeless hostels, breakfast clubs, and community cafes, and prepare meals for those in need. In total to date, they have provided over 46.5 million meals to vulnerable people in our communities.
Shirley, who has used food banks in the past and now volunteers at one, explains how challenging circumstances can affect everyone. ‘No one should need to ever use a food bank but sometimes things happen to people that are completely out of their control, like an illness, disability, family breakdown or the loss of a job. I was thrown into an unknown world. I never had any money for three months while waiting for Universal Credit. I couldn’t pay my rent, and I had to work out whether to eat in the morning or the afternoon because I didn’t have enough money for the basics. The food bank got me back on my feet and offered me hope that things would get better. I’m a great believer in giving back, and that’s why I volunteer my time at Southwark Foodbank.’
Next Meal, a group founded in Muswell Hill, London, aims to connect all of the soup kitchens, food banks and similar organisations through their online platform, so that those in need can identify their local supports. Spanning the UK, users simply enter their postcode, location, or use GPS to receive details of all the food providers in their area.
Handing a Next Meal card to someone in need, be it due to homelessness or other challenging circumstances, invites them to access the online platform and find help. By building a community of food providers and sharing best practice, Next Meal’s vision of social outreach is making a difference to those in need.
Far from the politics of Westminster and £4,500 bottles of wine, food banks and their countless volunteers are helping charities to support the most vulnerable in our society at the times they most need it.
Record 1.6m food bank parcels given to people in past year. As of April 2019.
The main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits consistently not covering the cost of living (33%), and delays or changes to benefits being paid. **
** Main reasons for referral between April 2018 – March 2019:
33.1% due to low income; our electronic referral data suggests over 80% of these referrals were for people receiving benefits and not earning. 20.3% due to delays in benefits being paid. 17.3% due to changes in benefits.
Hackney Foodbank is one of many food banks seeded by the Trussell Trust network. Based in inner London, they are one of the busiest food banks in the capital.
To help them continue their work feeding the growing numbers of people living in poverty, you can make a financial donation to them online on their home page by clicking on the red “Donate” button at: hackney.foodbank.org.uk
Alternatively, a simple Google search will enable you to find your local Trussell Trust foodbank, which you can donate to in the same way by clicking “Donate” on their home page and following the simple one payment instructions.