Now, more than ever before, we need to be planning an exit strategy from food banking.
I’m Sabine Goodwin of the Independent Food Aid Network or IFAN. We’re a UK-wide network of frontline food aid providers including over 400 independent food banks. IFAN supports its member organisations as they do their utmost to support people unable to afford food while collating data and advocating for the changes that would see an end for the need for charitable food aid.
I’ll just read from an email sent to me recently by one of our food bank managers based in Lincolnshire when I asked how things were going. It sums up IFAN’s work. Steve Ralf wrote: “I’m struggling to get people to see that every food parcel we deliver is still a sign of systemic failure no matter how good the deed”
This time last year I was counting food parcel numbers collated from independent food banks in Scotland. Alongside A Menu for Change we went on to report that 1,000 3-day emergency food parcels had been given out each day in Scotland over an 18-month period up to September 2019. The increase in need for food banks was unprecedented then. And this was well before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But our latest figures reveal a crisis far worse that we could possibly have imagined a year ago. You can access the report we published last Friday here. I was able to analyse data collated from 134 independent food banks operating in all four nations in both 2019 and 2020. 426,958 3-day emergency food parcels were given out over February to October 2020 - this represents an 88% increase compared to the same period in 2019.
But this data accounts for just a fraction of the emergency food aid picture. There are at least another 827 independent food banks that IFAN has identified operating across the UK. And our list of at least 961 independent food banks doesn’t include the large number of schools by now running food banks or the hospitals or universities distributing food parcels.
And, of course, there is the Trussell Trust – their network of 1393 food banks distributed more than 1.2 million food parcels between April and September alone. And we know that most of the 600-odd Salvation Army centres across the UK were distributing food parcels at the height of the first lockdown. What’s more hundreds of providers normally distributing a different kind of food aid started to give out food parcels because of social distancing measures.
Literally millions of emergency food parcels have supported people this year. And in the majority of cases this has been because people haven’t been able to afford to buy food for themselves and their families.
Independent food banks have seen increases in particular from younger people, households with children, single households, those with physical or mental health conditions, working households bringing in insufficient wages and from people with no recourse to public funds. And as we reported alongside Feeding Britain at the beginning of November there’s been a huge surge in the number of people who have never needed to use a food bank before.
In our most recent questionnaire, we asked contributing food banks report on the reasons why people had needed their support. From March through to September the most common reason to access 125 independent food banks was because: “Current benefits are insufficient to be able to afford food.” The second most common reason: “Existing benefit changes causing benefit payment delay”. And the third: “Newly unemployed and waiting for Universal Credit”
And our independent food banks are continuing to see unprecedented increases in need for their support. Figures for October saw a 62% increase compared to October of last year. Using last year’s November and December figures we’re expecting at least 519,065 food parcels to be given out in 2020 by 13% of known independent food banks.
The bottom line is that emergency food parcels cannot solve poverty. That’s never been the case and now the situation is far, far worse.
I had an email from one of our members yesterday about what he’s been seeing. He wrote: "They’re coming to us because: they don’t have enough money to buy food so they go hungry; they don’t have enough money to heat their homes so they live in the cold; they don’t have enough money to heat water so they unable able to wash and bathe; and on and on. But what is more worrying is that they accept this is as normal and often don’t seek help”
We cannot accept this as normal. We cannot stand by while anyone impacted by poverty can think this is normal.
Marcus Rashford has done an incredible job of focusing the public’s attention on the scale of child food poverty and he’s moved mountains. But, so far, we’ve only witnessed emergency responses. Responses that are desperately needed but kick the can that little bit further down the road.
It’s now more than ever that we need to be able to stop in our tracks and imagine what our society will look like in 5 years’ time if we continue to address what is fundamentally an absence of money with charitable food aid.
The £63 million allocation from Defra to England’s local authorities and more recently the £170 million from the DWP have provided most welcome opportunities to administer cash first options to people in need of support. We need to shouting from the roof tops that cash grants through local welfare assistance schemes provide a way out of normalising food banking further. We need to be urging local authorities to administer cash grants whenever they possible and avoid referring yet more people to food banks.
But at the heart of all this is a failing social security system. Dame Louise Casey is right to be calling for a ‘Beveridge moment’. My colleagues will say more on this but we need the Government to at the very least make the decision to keep the uplift to Universal Credit in place and extend that to legacy benefits. We also need the Government to remove the benefit cap, reduce the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, end the 2-child limit, end the sanctions system and permanently suspend no recourse to public fund status. These changes are fundamental to reducing the footfall to food banks.
But there is more to this than the benefits system. We need to make sure that when people do manage to access work that it is secure and that wages match the cost of living. We need any corporation signing up to ‘end child food poverty’ or to ‘end hunger forever’ to also to commit to paying a Real Living Wage. Huge numbers of people are needing help from a food bank when they do have work.
And we need to call out the conflation of food waste with food poverty. The redistribution of food surplus cannot be seen as a solution to food poverty. This is fundamental and decades of food banking in North America should be a warning to us on this point. FareShare has made huge efforts to support frontline food aid providers through the pandemic but it’s not an anti-poverty charity, it’s an environmental charity.
And we need to get behind campaigning to see the Right to Food incorporated into legislation so that UK Governments for generations to come will have an obligation to make sure that everyone has the right to a decent income so they can afford to buy food and live with dignity.
I look forward to working with colleagues to address the root causes of the poverty driving food bank use and to ending the need for food banks.