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  • Charlotte White

What’s the cost of doing nothing?

Updated: May 11, 2023

"People often talk about the cost of these support measures. But what’s the cost of doing nothing?"

After representing IFAN at a fringe event at the UNISON conference, Charlotte White (Earlsfield Food Bank) shares her thoughts on the need they are currently seeing and the recent measures announced by the Chancellor.

This week, I represented IFAN at the UNISON conference fringe event on ending the need for food banks. I talked about our frontline experience from the food bank – what we’re seeing, why we’re so worried and what we think the Government needs to do. Here’s what I said:

Our food bank is small – we only operate one morning per week, and we’re in a relatively affluent area of London. Yet the suffering and deprivation we’re seeing on a weekly basis is truly staggering. Every week it gets worse and worse, and we’re now terrified about what the winter will bring. And we’re not alone. We have regular calls with other IFAN members, and everyone is reporting similar experiences.

Our numbers are increasingly steeply. We currently support over 150 households on a regular basis - two years ago this was 30.

Many of these new guests have never needed food aid in their life before. Last week I registered a lady who’s 103. She was born in 1919, has lived under twenty different prime ministers, and yet for the first time in her life, needs food aid.

This winter we saw children sleeping in coats. We had a family who put heating on for 30 mins every day as a treat after their children did their homework. We regularly see people who miss meals so that their children can eat, or who take it in turns to have dinner. Only last week, we had a family with teenage children sleeping on floor as they can’t afford to replace their child-size beds which no longer fit. The eldest is 15 and was midway through exams. No food, no heating, no beds. What we’re seeing is Dickensian. I sometimes cannot quite believe that we’re in a prosperous area of a wealthy city in one of the richest countries in the world.

We’re not just seeing people who have little, we’re seeing people who have nothing. Who come to us with cupboards completely bare and fridges empty, who haven’t eaten for one or two days. More frequently than ever we’re seeing outright starvation and destitution.

Image: Mary Turner

What’s driving this increase? Poverty has been increasing steadily in this country with twelve years of austerity policies. The Universal Credit cut last year had a big impact on numbers, as did the end of furlough and we’re now seeing so many people come to us because of the cost-of-living increase. We have people tell us that this time last year they used to donate to us, but now they can’t feed their family without food bank support.

When a guest registers at the food bank we ask them reasons for food bank use, so we can direct them to the relevant support. Benefit issues are very common – the awful 5 week wait for the first Universal Credit payment, benefit delays and benefit sanctions (which seem to be rising steeply). Also housing issues, debt, people having No Recourse to Public Funds as well as domestic violence and family breakdown.

And then there are many issues around employment. Possibly the most alarming trend we’re observing at the moment is the number of new guests who actually have work. Recently we had a session where over half of the guests that day have work of some kind. We have delivery drivers, carers, supermarket workers, warehouse packers and many more. We even changed our system, so that people in work don’t have to queue – we did this after a DHL driver was almost penalised for late deliveries after a big food bank queue one morning.

Why do so many working people need our support? Either due to general low pay or zero-hour contracts. We have some guests who said that their hourly rate is adequate – they just don’t get enough hours to get by. Recently we had a warehouse packer who had all his hours for the following week cancelled at the last minute as supplies hadn’t arrived in time. Now of course, some working guests are entitled to benefits, but with an irregular income, navigating this sort of help can be a minefield. Many fear being hit with crippling deductions if they get the form filling wrong.

And a lot of time, it’s not just one issue driving people to food banks. People need food banks because of combination of factors rooted in poverty, a vicious circle where one problem causes another and another. Take Carrie, of our new guests: She’s struggling with her housing – it is damp and there is lots of dust from unfinished repair work. This has caused her son’s asthma to worsen, and as a result, he’s frequently off school. This has created school attendance issues, which is deepening Carrie’s anxiety. And then the DWP is chasing her regarding her employment search – she has missed interviews due to her son’s health.

As in Carrie’s case, we’re seeing a real escalation in poverty having dire consequences on mental health. You may have seen the report “Pushed to Edge: Poverty, food banks and mental health” by Tom Pollard, which you can find on the IFAN website. Tom actually did some of his research in our food bank. In his report he identifies the loneliness, isolation, lack of energy, boredom that go hand in hand with poverty. “If I didn’t have so much pressure, maybe I’d be alright…. I’m just tired. I’m seriously tired of struggling” and “My brain is on fire all the time, and that’s just all through the pressure of life, really I can’t look beyond today. My head is just above water at the moment. Just above. It’s a struggle”.

So what can be done? IFAN campaigns for cash-first, income-based solutions.

Food bank use only represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wider food insecurity levels. For every person that uses a food bank, there are many more going hungry. Recent Food Standards Agency data showed that 4% of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland used a food bank in the 12 months to June 2021, but 15% of people went hungry or reduced their food intake due to lack of income.

This is one of the reasons that IFAN has developed “Worrying About Money?” leaflets. They provide a simple step-by-step guide for where to get help specific to an area. The ones we use are for Wandsworth. We distribute them in pharmacies, GP surgeries, schools, libraries, charity shops and also give them to employers…anywhere where we can reach people when they’re first facing financial difficulty. These leaflets epitomise IFAN’s cash first approach.

Image: Mary Turner

People resort to using food banks because they can’t afford to buy food. However, an emergency supply of food will not resolve financial crisis and can only act as a temporary sticking plaster. The distribution of emergency food parcels cannot address the escalating poverty. What’s more, the impact of poverty and food insecurity on people’s physical and mental health comes at enormous human cost and strains public finances through the provision of NHS and other support. People often talk about the cost of these support measures. But what’s the cost of doing nothing?

As part of IFAN, we want to see the end of the need for charitable food aid in the UK. Everyone living in our society should be able to afford food and other essentials.

The Chancellor’s recent cash first interventions represent a step in the right direction but far more needs to be done to stem the tide of growing poverty. It’s vital that further measures are urgently introduced that will ensure cash first, income-base solutions to growing food insecurity such as:

  1. all social security payments must match the cost of living

  2. the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, benefit cap, two-child limit, sanctions system, and No Recourse to Public Funds status must be removed

  3. wages should also match the cost of living and job security must be ensured

  4. crisis payments in the form of cash must be available, easily accessible, and well-promoted in every local authority in the UK

As part of IFAN, we believe it’s critical that the root causes of growing poverty and food insecurity need to be addressed. In the sixth richest economy in the world, no one should be in the position of having to resort to a food bank or similar service because of a lack of income.

Food banks are not the answer. In fact, we would go further and say that our very existence is part of the problem. By doing what we do we’re complicit in a broken, failing system. And it’s the system that needs to be changed.


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