This report is the result of five years of research focusing on two areas of the UK: an urban area in north London and a rural area in west Wales, places I chose these two areas because I already knew them well.
The approach was largely ethnographic and qualitative, looking in depth at a number of food banks and other food aid organisations such as soup kitchens. In the course of this I interviewed over one hundred food aid clients and volunteers (including managers and trustees) and also talked to staff of several national-level organisations. In addition I participated in meetings and some of the myriad tasks carried out by volunteers and made use of the literature produced by the organisations themselves (websites, newsletters, minutes of meetings) and the national print and virtual media.
Much important background on poverty was obtained from a community centre on a ‘regenerating’ council estate in north London and from a Citizens’ Advice Bureau in west Wales, both of which form case studies in the Report. A further four case studies are food banks, three belonging to the Trussell Trust and one independent, while the final case study is a community café using locally-sourced ‘surplus’ food.
Over the period of five years, there were a number of important changes in the food aid sector.
The first and most obvious has been its huge growth, so that there are now around 2000 food banks in the UK, 1200 affiliated with the Trussell Trust and around 800 being independent. It is argued by the sector that this increase is because of increasing need but this has been denied by some politicians and some of the press.
The second change has been the increasing involvement of the food industry. Tesco was an early ‘partner’ with Trussell and in 2016 pioneered the Food cloud app with the national organisation food collection Fareshare; this has enabled food banks to add some fresh products to their ambient donations from the public via collections in schools, and supermarket collection bins. Most food banks now obtain at least some of their food via the app, although a number of those studied had also set up bilateral relations of their own with local supermarkets and smaller retailers. Much of the food coming from the food industry is deemed ‘surplus’: food approaching its ‘use by’ date, squashed packages and dented tins. Donations to food charity are important to the food industry not only because it is a means of disposing of surplus food without using landfill, but also because it fulfils corporate social responsibility requirements (CSR) and improves ‘brand’.
A third change has been in social welfare and this has included some cuts to entitlements, as well as the introduction of Universal Credit; this rolled up all previously existing benefits, some of which had been paid through central government and others through local councils. While this has been touted as a much more efficient way of administering benefits, the net effects have been largely negative: long waits to obtain payments (at least five weeks but often longer), a punitive sanctions regime for failure to comply with job searches, an online claims system which makes it very difficult to operate for those without access to wifi, computers or the necessary skills. Furthermore, benefits are now very low, around half of the state pension for retired people and one of the lowest in Europe. However, in spite of many criticisms of Universal Credit coming from all sides, the government has refused to make changes.
A fourth change has been in the discourse around food banks and food charity generally. While many more people now know about food banks, donate to and applaud them, they are not without their critics. Basically, food banks are not members’ clubs – they are largely composed of givers (donors, volunteers) and receivers (clients), with all of the imbalance of power that this situation implies. In my research I found that only a minority of foodbanks invite their clients to become volunteers or even to give feedback about the services offered. Further, using a food bank is laden with stigma, something which is often internalised by clients, which is why many food poor prefer not to go there but to turn to relatives friends and neighbours (a much under-reported source of help) or just manage by cutting down on food consumption or buying cheaper (and usually unhealthier) food.
Recently, some of the premises behind food banks has been challenged and there is more talk of finding ways to preserve the ‘dignity’ and ‘agency’ of clients, especially in Scotland but south of the border too. Some food banks have become more activist and the Trussell Trust, for example, has campaigned against the long wait for Universal Credit in its ‘5 weeks too long’ campaign.
The biggest change in the food aid sector has been as a result of the pandemic. Suddenly there was less food available (although this situation was later mitigated somewhat) and there was a huge drop in the number of volunteers because so many of them were over 70. At the same time the demand for help with food increased enormously because of job losses which in many cases meant applying for Universal Credit, with its attendant waits for a much lower income than previously. The pandemic exposed to an even greater extent the fragility of the food aid sector and the impossibility of its being able to meet the needs of all food insecure citizens.
Under international law, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure the right to food which in the case of a market economy like our own, means having an income sufficient to choose and buy what is needed. Ensuring this would mean significant changes in policy on the part of the government.