The contradiction between supporting our UK food aid provider members while campaigning to see an end to the need for charitable food aid sinks in daily. As more and more people experience food insecurity - our latest data from Scotland saw a 22% increase in emergency food parcel distribution - so does the need to support member organisations as they try desperately to provide food to adults and children all over the country. If ever more sophisticated ways to supply emergency food aid are developed, will our vision of a country which doesn’t need emergency food aid start to fade away? How much infrastructure will be in place before we finally find a way to dismantle it?
Recently we’ve been contacted about our list of independent food banks by groups keen to develop systems which will help people find food banks and help food banks acquire more food and financial resources. All important, but can these initiatives do any more than support the sticking plaster element of our work? These emerging groups are committed to supporting those in need and their determination is admirable. But will these increasingly sophisticated efforts in fact dissuade members of the public concerned about food poverty from taking actions which seek to close the gap as well as fill it? It’s very easy to believe that the quick fix solution of donating food or cash will somehow end food poverty. But the reality is very different. Several decades of food banking in North America has not stopped hunger - 37 million people live with food insecurity in the USA. It is, after all, social injustice that causes people to go hungry, not an absence of food; it’s income that’s missing in people’s pockets.
But perhaps it’s too late to even consider this dilemma. Arguably food banks are here to stay, embedded as they so often are within the fabric of our communities. A recent study of independent food banks operating in England found that 75% of those food banks using a referral system were receiving referrals from local authorities. In Middlesbrough, council staff are being paid to volunteer in their local food banks. Libraries are giving out lunches in the school holidays. Football clubs are running huge food bank donation drives before matches. It would appear that in just 10 years emergency charitable food aid has been effectively normalised as a fourth emergency service in the UK.
I was asked last week whether I considered the situation reversible? I still believe it is. If enough people, whether accessing, staffing or donating to food banks, were able to engage with their local representatives, surely, food banks could become obsolete. All of us really could have access to the means to go to shops to buy food and make our own choices.
So, what of the apps and websites, how might they best support those in need without normalising this situation further? We’re hoping that groups working to help with donations and access will also call for policy change. However cynical people might feel about this process, we are convinced that writing to and engaging with local MPs is critical to change. As our representatives, MPs need to know that food banks shouldn’t be necessary to stave off hunger. MPs need to know that the poverty driving food bank use must be addressed. MPs need to know that the five plus week wait for Universal Credit payments; the inadequate benefit payments; benefit sanctions; insecure work including zero-hour contracts; low wages; the impact of cuts to local authority budgets on local welfare provision; and cuts to mental health services across the UK are all factors driving growing food bank use. These are all factors shaped by policy decisions, and can be reversed by policy decisions. More tins of food and easier access to food banks unfortunately won’t stop hunger from happening in the first place.
So, for every donated tin or cash donation, for every volunteer hour in a food bank, for every food parcel received could donors, volunteers and those with lived experience commit to writing a letter to a MP protesting against this not so new and unwelcome reality? Imagine letters to MPs for every emergency food parcel distributed by independent and Trussell Trust food banks between April 2018-March 2019? All 3 million of them? An end to the need for food banks is possible but it is up to all of us involved to make it happen.
Sabine Goodwin is the Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network and has been responsible for identifying independent food banks operating across the UK as well as for data collation from independent food banks in Scotland.