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As COVID-19 “pop up” food banks prepare for the long haul, what now for ending the need for food banks in the UK?

By Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network

Poverty isn’t inevitable but as lockdown has lifted it seems the food banking script has already been written. Things are getting worse for the millions of people who lived in poverty before March 2020 or are falling into poverty now. As Henry Dimbleby put it in last week’s National Food Strategy report: “Poverty will almost certainly increase and with it the number of people going hungry.” Meanwhile, the Government appears unwilling to address the poverty facing millions and so prevent the likelihood of even greater increases in food insecurity.

Since it was founded in 2016, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has envisioned a UK without the need for food banks - not such an unrealistic proposition given the vast majority have opened since 2010. Food banks have been set up as responses to austerity-induced need in communities across Britain. They were meant to be as temporary or as “pop up” as the new COVID-19 food banks rapidly joining IFAN.

But there’s no doubt that the last few months of crisis has further entrenched what was only ever a sticking plaster response to food poverty. Our society’s current default setting is to meet immediate need with food supplies rendering people unable to afford to buy food dependent on charity. These food supplies might be donated, purchased or surplus.

Part of the problem is that during lockdown a huge category of people needing charitable food aid because they couldn’t afford food were subsumed into a general “vulnerable” category by all concerned from Government departments to fundraising charities. The shielded, the self-isolating and people living in or falling into poverty were merged into one general pot of vulnerable people who need emergency food parcels to survive.

Supermarkets and other businesses have also played their part in food banking entrenchment. ASDA have continued to “fight hunger” and Morrison’s, Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and the Co-op have helped food banks but support is now being limited. Corporate support was very much needed during the height of lockdown but the media fanfare that comes with it can only have normalised the food bank route further. Even Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have recently been pictured with FareShare vans.

Meanwhile the redistribution of surplus food as an acceptable solution to hunger has gathered pace. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee report also published last week made welcome recommendations on a coordinated cross-departmental approach to food security but also called for further investment in the redistribution of food surplus through FareShare to “help those who struggle to afford food as the effects of the pandemic continue”. FareShare is “fighting hunger” while redistributing surplus food and buying food wholesale on behalf of Governments - neither strategy will do more than temporarily relieve hunger. Similarly, FareShare and The Felix Project have joined forces "to tackle the unprecedented hunger crisis facing Londoners” with surplus food. Nor are the efforts of Bankuet to turn financial donations into food supply for food banks likely to result in more in the long-term than stabilising food banking.

Faced with the prospect of hunger on their door step, local authorities in every corner of the UK have set up food hubs and have been delivering food parcels to the “vulnerable”. Some have successfully managed to triage need, to establish which vulnerable people actually need access to a cash grant rather than a delivery of food. Others have relied on their local food banks to cope with a myriad of needs, again normalising food charity, without promoting local welfare provision and a cash first approach.

As the public’s focus turns to the new local lockdown normal, supermarket donations to food banks are running dry, furloughed volunteers are set to return to work – or be made redundant, compassion fatigue is setting in and local authorities are winding up local food aid set-ups. But with a 148% increase in emergency food parcel provision from February to May 2020 across independent food banks there seems to be no sign of a lessening of need - far from it. What’s more, the many food banks set up for the COVID-19 crisis have realised the need for their help isn’t going away anytime soon.

But what hope is there of closing food banks’ doors or of food banks reinventing themselves as community food hubs as the impact of COVID-19 takes hold? What hope is there for our vision of country without the need for food aid and in which good food is accessible to all? The National Food Strategy report makes welcome references to the poverty driving the need for charitable food aid but, crucially, it falls short of recommending that the Government do more than temporally mitigate food poverty.

Early in July, members of the Independent Food Aid Network wrote to the Prime Minister to urge him to address the poverty driving food bank use. From their perspective the solution lies not in institutionalising their work but rather in directing much needed resources to the people they support. The result would be that food banks wouldn’t be needed in the first place. Propping up food banks whether through Defra funding, public donations or corporate support is the equivalent of filling a bottomless pit. What’s needed more than ever is action to rebuild our social security system, increase the wages of those on low incomes and suspend the No Recourse to Public Funds status.

Local authorities and other agencies as well as IFAN and colleagues working in the third sector all have a part to play in putting income-based solutions at the front and centre of policies and calls to support people driven into poverty. Frontline food aid charities may need public donations to provide immediate support but it’s the public’s support for change that will see the end for the need for their services. If we are serious about “tackling” or “fighting” hunger then it’s the public’s – and the Government’s – understanding of what that would actually look like that’s required - and the answer doesn’t lie in more food. Marcus Rashford is a brilliant advocate and 100,000s of meals and summer school meal voucher scheme will make a huge difference. However, there’s a real danger these successes, and steps in the right direction like these, effectively hide the elephant in the room for just that bit longer.

As our food poverty crisis deepens, to levels unimaginable a year ago, an emergency food bank response is the last thing that should be on the agenda. Now is the time to stop hunger from happening in the first place.

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