Glossing over the causes of poverty might elicit donations but there’s a harsh reality to be faced
By Sabine Goodwin, Director of the Independent Food Aid Network
We can’t afford to let this December’s festive season sweep reality under the carpet. More and more people don’t have enough money to pay for food, heating, and other essentials. The feel-good factor inextricably entwined with charitable giving at this time of year needs scrutiny. Donations are urgently required but it’s calling out what’s behind Christmas appeals that will make the difference in the long term.
Independent food banks are immensely grateful for any donations that come their way. Like their Trussell Trust counterparts, they know only too well that January 2024 looks set to be the bleakest start of the year since food banks have been around. The last year has seen falling food donations, dwindling surplus food supply, and volunteers who are increasingly burnt out. Yet, demand has continued to rise at an unprecedented rate and overstretched food banks have kept on, somehow, finding a way to provide support.
The result of their Herculean efforts are jaw-dropping emergency food parcel distribution figures which persistently increase (apparently unbeknownst to our Prime Minister). However, millions upon millions of food parcels have not, and cannot, put a dent in soaring poverty and food insecurity statistics. As many as 3.8 million people faced destitution in 2022, two and half times the number in this position in 2017. What’s more, the Department for Work and Pensions’ own data tells us that most households facing severe food insecurity don’t access a food bank. There’s no doubt that food bank teams make an immeasurable difference to the lives of some people in need in the here and now. But the poverty that drives food bank use clearly requires something more – changes in government policy.
As the UK Government continues to cruise past a calamity affecting millions of households across Britain, the public still somehow manages to respond to Christmas donation appeals to meet immediate need. Surely there’s a way to adapt our relatively new habit of filling a bottomless food poverty gap? Food banks have only been around in force for a decade. Would it be unthinkable for large-scale appeals for donations to be combined with calls for actions? Can we not come to a collective realisation that responding to poverty simply through charity isn’t going to stop people falling into its trap?
The proliferation of a multitude of charitable “banks” attempting to mask the absence of a social security safety net is mind-boggling. Last winter, there was an outcry when warm banks or warm spaces became part of an array of essential support. This wasn’t enough to stop them from emerging as a response to ‘fuel’ poverty this winter too.
And this year, thanks to the support of the Princess of Wales, we’ve seen baby banks take centre stage. However, against the glamorous backdrop of kind-hearted Windsors helping at a local baby bank, there’s an increasingly dangerous reality facing families with babies across the country. Many parents don’t have enough money to buy infant formula, Healthy Start vouchers don’t even cover the cost of one tin, and some supermarkets have increased the price of this basic essential beyond inflation. Added to this, finding local support is extremely challenging. Statutory and local advice services are overwhelmed and confusion reigns as to how often volunteer-run food and baby banks, which might or might not be running, can best provide support.
Unfortunately, no amount of royal patronage is going to stop the drivers of what’s been labelled “infant food insecurity”. But we might stand a chance if the Princess of Wales was able to reference the reasons families seek help and what needs to be done to address them.
First, and foremost, household incomes are too low. Social security payments and wages are woefully inadequate. However welcome, a rise of 6.7% and increases to the National Minimum Wage aren’t going to enable people to access a Living Income. Meanwhile the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, benefit deductions, sanctions, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and No Recourse to Public Funds status consistently drive people to need charitable support.
Secondly, prompt, well-promoted and adequate local authority crisis support via cash payments is vital. So, it’s critical that the Household Support currently funding 62% of local welfare assistance schemes in England is not cut at the end of March.
Food bank teams speak about how they’re constantly treading water or at worst are being pulled against the tide. As more people turn to them for support, some are faced with closure due to lack of resources. The haphazard patchwork that’s emerged beneath a shredded social security safety net is now showing signs of falling apart. A charitable response to poverty is not only ineffective, but also unsustainable.
The answer is not to simply keep bolstering the “banks”. The answer, surely, is to combine calls for much needed support with calls for action. Food bank teams have been calling for the end of the need for their services for years. But donors and fundraisers are part of the solution too.
The feel-good factor of donating needs to be extended to writing to MPs and to calling out the drivers of poverty. We need more campaigners as well as more donations. We need more fundraisers focussed on marketing the need to address the root causes of poverty as well as ways to fill the gap. And we need more royal activism, not simply pivotal endorsement of the status quo.
Acquiescence breeds normality and resisting the normalisation of food banks, baby banks and their counterparts is key. There is nothing normal about the fact that 3.8 million people are facing destitution, 309,000 people are facing homelessness, and 4.2 million children are living in poverty. There’s nothing normal about political parties failing to take on board the gravity of poverty and its impact on a fifth of the population’s health and longevity. And there’s nothing normal about royal patronage of a charitable response to poverty when the gap between rich and poor puts the UK almost at the bottom of UNICEF’s child poverty league table of EU and OECD countries.
Poverty will never be eradicated, our detractors might say. But we can certainly try to reduce the tsunami of need coming the way of overstretched “banks”. If MPs don’t know that addressing the root causes of poverty matters to their constituents, then it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the food bank paradox that filling the gap won’t close it. When we make much needed donations, let’s call on our MPs, our representatives, to do as much as possible to remove the drivers of poverty and the need for charity.
You can access IFAN’s template for writing to your local MP here.