Why writing to your MP as well as donating to food banks matters
Updated: May 11
if we are to see an end to food poverty in the UK...
As the potential impact of Coronavirus on the work of charitable food aid providers becomes clearer, Frank Field and Andrew Forsey of Feeding Britain write about both engaging with MPs on the underlying causes of hunger as well as making much needed donations. Donations alone won't end food poverty.
The social Dunkirk we have witnessed over the past ten years is in danger of being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of need only made more acute by the impact of Coronavirus.
Throughout the past decade, tens of thousands of people have set up or supported voluntary organisations to protect their fellow citizens from hunger. Those organisations have ranged from food banks and soup kitchens, to social supermarkets and community pantries.
These efforts have been supported by an even larger group of people registering their concern for the plight of the hungry, by donating food and other supplies to these organisations.
Yet, at a recent meeting of Feeding Birkenhead, Supporting Wirral – one of twelve Feeding Britain branches – a stark conundrum was presented. By and large, organisations have massively increased the amount of food they are able to source from donations, as well as from the redistribution of surplus stock from retailers’ and manufacturers’ supply chains. These increases, though, are now far outweighed by the growing need that stems from deepening poverty within our communities.
The upshot is clear. Donations continue to be needed desperately, but without action to tackle the root causes of hunger, they won't do more than fill an ever-growing gap. People will still be hungry and in need of support next week and the week after.
Since Feeding Britain was established by a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, in 2015, our aims have been twofold: to initiate activities which offer immediate help for the poor and reduce their need for food banks; and, through an ongoing effort in Parliament, to apply the lessons from these activities so that necessary changes in government policy, to minimise the need for food banks, can be gained.
Such changes which have already been gained – around the cost of energy on prepayment meters, the administration of tax credits and child benefit, and support for families during school holidays, for example – represent major boosts to families’ living standards.
However, there are broader trends which have taken root in both the labour market and the welfare state over the past decade – and are most stark in the proliferation of zero-hours contracts, the delays and deductions associated with Universal Credit, and the inaccuracies and rigidity that all too often accompany the twin regimes of sanctions and disability benefit assessments – that hang over household food budgets every week like the sword of Damocles.
It is within these broader trends that the underlying causes of hunger are found, and on which MPs and Peers can be most effective in countering. Three years ago, when we worked on a bill to gain government support for a programme which could address the spike in demand for food banks during school holidays, more than 130 MPs from all parties registered their support. Many of them did so following regular communication from their constituents, as well as volunteers supporting projects within their constituency, around the importance of the bill and how they, as the local MP, could help. The government duly responded with an initial £20 million package of support which culminated in a £1 billion manifesto commitment encompassing the provision of childcare, activities, and meals during school holidays.
Another breakthrough was made, using similar means, with a bill to begin officially measuring the full extent of hunger and our fellow citizens’ vulnerability to it. The bill was championed by Emma Lewell-Buck MP who is a colleague of ours at Feeding Britain.
Might we therefore issue a rallying cry around the need to combine the act of donating, with associated action to draw attention to the need for such donations and what can be done to address that need?
If, for every can or food item donated, there was a letter to the local MP urging them to raise with ministers the root causes of hunger and poverty within their constituency, this would begin to shine a bright light on what needs to be done and the willingness there is in Parliament to do so. Right now, for example, when donating food to community-led initiatives who are gearing up to maintain vulnerable people's access to food while the world tries to deal with Coronavirus, each of us could write to our local MP asking them to obtain from the Government plans to speed up Universal Credit payments and, if the schools do close, to continue the provision of free school meals (including breakfasts).
Ultimately, this dual action – which matches Feeding Britain’s aims of combining immediate support with work to address the need for that support – will also indicate our determination, as a society, to eliminate hunger from our shores by reversing the increasing reliance on charitable food aid that has characterised the past decade.
Frank Field and Andrew Forsey, Feeding Britain
Please ask your MP to address the root causes of the poverty driving food bank use. Find out more here.