It might disappear from the headlines, but the food bank story is not going away. A new report has come out about food banks – this one is a survey carried out by Oxford University to find out some of the circumstances of people who go to food banks.
Among other things, the research found that:
78% of households were classified as severely food insecure – that is to say they had missed meals, or not eaten at all (sometimes for days at a time) because they did not have enough money for food, and this was an experience repeated every month or nearly every month in the last year.
50% of households experienced other forms of destitution, such as not being able to afford essential toiletries or not having enough money to heat their homes for at least four days in one month.
These circumstances are shocking to read. But what really struck me was the language used to describe them. People are going to food banks because they are destitute. Just pause for a moment. What does that word conjure up for you? To me it feels like a word we should have left behind with Dickens, paupers in Victorian London about to be cast into the workhouse. But in Britain today, there are families who are that close to the edge that we describe them as destitute.
And then there’s the phrase food insecurity. Usually I encounter that phrase when I’m at work at Christian Aid, talking about farmers in Burkina Faso, or those caught up in the famine in East Africa right now. Communities who don’t have enough margin of resilience to be sure they will always have enough to eat. And yet households in the UK are food insecure. Because of chronically low incomes, or unpredictable incomes, they do not have the resources to ensure that they have enough food. A feature of the developing world can be found in the fifth richest country in the world.
The use of food banks continues to rise. In the last year, the Trussell Trust gave out 1.18 million food parcels, and they are just one of many providers. Meanwhile, calls to implement policies that might address the problem and reduce food bank use are ignored. The people I know running food banks all say they are a sticking plaster measure. They do not provide a long-term solution, just a stop gap in an emergency. But the longer they exist, they more they feel normal, and the more they unintentionally collude with government policies that have created the need in the first place.
So are food banks here to stay? Are we happy with that? Is food charity part of the welfare state now? What has happened to our social contract where we expect to be caught by the safety net in times of need because we have pooled our resources through our tax and national insurance? Churches and other groups have seen the need and responded with compassion, but you are out of luck if that compassion hasn’t extended to your town or local community. Is that fair or equitable?
Before we decide that charity and food hand-outs are a legitimate solution for the UK, it’s worth going back to places that have long-term experience of food insecurity. What are the solutions in Burkina Faso or to famine in East Africa? Food hand-outs are absolutely only an emergency response. In the long-term, sustainable solutions are needed so that those experiencing food insecurity become food secure. Solutions that include making sure people have an adequate income, and a reliable income. Income might be unpredictable because of climate change in Burkina Faso and because of benefit delays in the UK, but food hand-outs are not the adequate response to either.
Food banks are one big, obvious symptom of life in austerity Britain, where there are jobs, but they are low-paid and insecure, there are benefits, but they are deliberately delayed, where support for the disabled is rationed and where debt is on the rise. This is why people are destitute and food insecure, and a food parcel is not going to change that.