Foodbank Futures

In ‘The Foodbank Dilemma’, James Harrison investigated for Lacuna the reasons behind the rapid rise of the Trussell Trust foodbank network across Britain. Three years on, he re-visits Britain’s foodbanks and speaks to the people who work and volunteer there to find out what has changed and what the future might hold in store.

On the morning of 14 March 2017, a lorry arrived at a warehouse on Progress Way in Coventry and picked up 2.4 tonnes of shrink-wrapped food, loaded onto five pallets, each measuring a metre in diameter. The lorry drove around 180 miles to Hastings where the pallets were taken off the lorry, unpacked and put to use in dealing with a shortfall in food at the local Trussell Trust foodbank.

Natalie Williams from Hastings Foodbank explained to me the reasons why the food was needed. “We normally see 35 to 40 people at each of our sessions, where food is given out to those in need from across the local area. But from December last year, numbers had doubled to around 80 people.”

Two changes had led to this surge in demand.

“We became a fuel bank last summer as well as a foodbank. We started giving out funds to pay for gas and electricity to struggling households alongside emergency food aid. This led to an increase in referrals, particularly as winter kicked in and people were having more and more trouble with the cost of heating their homes. And in November 2016, Universal Credit was rolled out for all new claimants in our area, as well as those with a change of circumstances. There is a 6 week gap before you get payments under the new system, and lots of people were struggling with not having money to pay for basics like food. And suddenly we were giving out 2 tonnes of food for every 1 tonne donated. I don’t know any foodbank that would have coped with that much of a surge in demand.”

That’s why Gavin Kibble, Operations Director at Coventry Foodbank received a call to see if he could help out. When I first visited Coventry Foodbank in 2014, crates of supplies to serve its 16 foodbank centres were packed into every inch of an old Methodist Church hall. Three years on, a 25,000ft² warehouse is now home to the organisation, as well as pallets and crates of food stacked on giant shelving, rack upon rack of clothing and a bicycle repair shop. The food is serving not just Coventry, but also other foodbanks around the country. As Gavin told me: “The kind of situation Hastings faced is exactly what this place is about; dealing with emergencies and shortages across the network.”

Foodbank distribution centre, Coventry

Foodbank distribution centre, Coventry, 2014

Foodbank distribution centre, Coventry,2017

The Trussell Trust’s foodbanks are evolving. But not uniformly. My conversations with people from across the network have made me think about a number of possible futures for foodbanks in the UK. They have also made me marvel again at how people will come together to help feed hungry people, and the complexity of the problems that bring people to foodbanks in the first place.

Feeding People

On a Friday morning in April, I take a train up to Edinburgh and then make my way across the city to South Leith Parish Church Halls. I have come to talk to Arthur Matherson, the operations manager of the Edinburgh North East Foodbank Network and to see the Friday afternoon foodbank session which is North East Edinburgh’s busiest of the week.

As I enter the building, I see Arthur talking to a local school teacher who has brought bags of food from the children in her classes to be distributed to those in need. The floor in front of us is covered with tins and packets. And I can also see several Easter Eggs and two cuddly-toy rabbits. They talk about future donations before she rushes off back to school, and Arthur takes me over to the other side of the cavernous hall where food is set out on trestle tables, ready to be parcelled up and given out when the foodbank opens an hour later.

There are the standard foodbank items set out on one table, and beside it a number of crates marked ‘kettle food’. Arthur tells me these are for the people who don’t have any facilities to cook, but can boil up water for a pot noodle or a cuppa soup. Up against the far wall of the hall are some fresh bread and cakes that have been donated from local bakeries and a range of toiletries to be given out with the food.

We sit down at a small table on one side of the hall and Arthur tells me where the food comes from; around 60% of it from individual donations, and a further 20-30% from local supermarket collections. “The core here is the community.” Arthur tells me. “It’s important that people see the food come in and they see it go out.”

And when the foodbank asks for donations, the community responds. Hibernian football stadium is about a mile and a half down the road. Arthur tells me about the foodbank’s efforts to engage with the club’s supporters: “We put a notice in the football programme last December. And every person going through the turn-styles was given a card [asking them to bring food]. Two weeks later, on the Saturday just before Christmas, the Hibs supporters gave us 10 tonnes of food. The crowd that day was 14,000 people. And so perhaps five or six thousand people brought food along to the match.”

“Then we had about 20 people for a few weekends just sorting out the food that had been given. The volunteers enjoyed it. It gave them a good feeling as well. We want to work in the community like that.”

Ella Anderson comes to sit down with us. She is the co-ordinator of the session at today’s foodbank. She tells me “When we first started, we were an elderly community of helpers, then we had an enquiry from a young laddie and since then we have a number of young people come and help. All these youngsters have really got into it.”

After the church arranged a showing of the film I, Daniel Blake, there was a big spike in the numbers of people who wanted to volunteer.  Arthur takes a piece of paper out of a folder with a long list of names. They are all waiting for the opportunity to help out. Later, Arthur gives me another list – it includes all of the organisations who are providing free and cheap food across Edinburgh from the Central Mosque Foodbank to Broomhouse Community One Stop Shop. I count 17 different organisations across the city. All will have their own volunteer networks and ways of acquiring the food they distribute.

It’s the same everywhere I visit. I am constantly struck by how many people will pitch in to help feed hungry people. A couple of weeks after I visit Edinburgh, I am stuck behind a tractor on the beautiful country roads of West Cheshire, late for a meeting about children’s holiday hunger in the villages I am slowly passing. When I finally arrive at a small community hall in the suburbs of Chester City, I meet up with Alec Spencer from West Cheshire Foodbank who is helping to co-ordinate food for the wide range of holiday clubs and sports activities that are planned across the summer holidays. Children can come along and at the same time be guaranteed a free and healthy meal. I sit and listen as the volunteers discuss how they will manage different programmes in different villages in the surrounding area. Some of the activities are well-established, others are starting for the first time this year and the organisers are hoping to pick up tips from more experienced voices in the room.

The conversation turns to ensuring there are enough volunteers to run all the activities that are planned. One lady tells how she went into the local school and told the teachers about her holiday club. They were so relieved to know the children they teach will get at least one good meal a week throughout the summer holiday that they were happy to give up their time and volunteer to make sure the club would happen.

Understanding the Problems 

Back in Coventry, on a bright sunny morning in a newly painted office in the Trussell Trust’s Coventry warehouse, Anne Danks, Operations Manager of the Trussell Trust’s English Foodbank Network, speaks to me about the foodbank phenomenon. It is a week after the Trussell Trust have published their latest bi-annual figures. The number of people in the UK using foodbanks continues to rise. Almost 1.2 million three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis between April 2016 and April 2017.

Anne tells me: “It’s hard to say whether the increase in the numbers of users we are seeing is because foodbanks are better engaged with agencies so people are getting more access to the foodbank when they need it, or whether there are more people in need. And we haven’t got aggregated data at the moment about the full picture [including non-Trussell Trust Foodbanks]. That’s the nature of the charity sector. What we can say is that the numbers haven’t gone down.”

In the absence of hard figures, all we have is estimates of the overall scale of the problem. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger reckons that you can more than double the Trussell Trust figures if you include all the other emergency food aid being distributed.  And one survey suggests even those numbers may be the tip of a much bigger iceberg; that more than 8 million people across the UK are struggling to put food on the table. Numerous informed voices are now calling on government to start systematically measuring the real extent of food poverty in the UK, as the starting point of more concerted action on the issue.

All of this means that examining the work of Trussell Trust Foodbanks does not give us a good idea of the true scale of food poverty in the UK. But it can tell us something about the reasons why people rely on emergency food aid.

In the absence of hard figures, all we have is estimates of the overall scale of the problem.

In places like Hastings, Universal Credit has had a big impact. Anne Danks tells me, “Where universal credit has been rolled out we are seeing twice the national average increase [in foodbank use].” The Trussell Trust have recently reported on the problems of the roll-out of Universal Credit across the country. Delays and problems in receiving payments are leading not only to foodbank referrals but also to increased debt, mental health issues, rent arrears and even to people being evicted from their homes.

Stories about the effects of welfare benefits sanctions and delays were common when I last visited foodbanks three years ago. They still are. But this time around, many people also want to talk to me about the problems of in-work poverty. In Coventry, Gavin Kibble says, “Our figures this year will be slightly lower than last year. That’s because of increased employment in the city.  We gave out around 15,000 parcels last year. We were at 18,600 at our peak. But at the same time, there has been a rise in people accessing the foodbank because of low income.”

Time and again I hear poignant stories about people who are working, but struggling to make ends meet. In Leamington, I meet Andy Bower, Operations Manager of Leamington Foodbank. His office is nestled in beside the chapel inside St. Mary’s Church. We talk over a cup of tea, brewed while I gaze up at the church’s altar.

“There was one case I really remember.” Andy sighs, “A single mother with the father absent. She’d got two children, one about 15 months, and a pre-school age toddler. Granny was looking after the toddler and the baby was at a day nursery while the mother was working at a call centre in Coventry. She was told the week before Christmas that she wasn’t required until the 3rd week of January. She was in a right state when she came to the foodbank. She said, ‘I’ve got Christmas to get through, I’ve got rent to pay, I’ve got the electric to pay, and I’m not going to have any money for four weeks.’ And because she was employed, she wasn’t entitled to go and get any form of benefit. So she was reliant on handouts from family and friends. And that’s just crazy. She’s trying to do her best by working. But without any forethought, employers can just say: ‘I don’t need you now. I don’t need you next week.’”

I hear similar tales from Arthur and Ella in South Leith Parish Church Halls.  As we talk, the parish minister, the Reverend Iain May, sits down with us. He wonders if the invisibility of people’s work struggles are part of the problem: 

“At one time, around here you used to see people standing outside factory gates, and people used to come round and give them a tally. You can get a day’s work, you can’t. And the problem was obvious. Nowadays people are sat at home and finding out if they are working from their mobile phones. If we saw people standing outside Primark on Princes Street, Doc Martens and all the other shops every morning, just to see if they were going to get a few hours work, if that was happening, we would see the queues of people, and I think we would do something about it.”

The Trussell Trust do seek to bring attention to the reasons for people visiting foodbanks. Every six months they publish figures which reveal the causes. And whether people are struggling because of benefits problems or issues with work, there is increasing recognition that many people visiting foodbanks are not just having a one-off crisis. For the first time in April 2017, the Trussell Trust reported the most common reason why people visited a foodbank was ‘low income’.  As Anne Danks tells me “chronic long term poverty is the backdrop. And they are just about managing to make ends meet, and when a crisis hits, they are very vulnerable and that’s when they have to access a food parcel.”

A Diversity of Responses 

Against this backdrop of complexity, the foodbanks I visit see their roles very differently. In Edinburgh, Arthur Matherson tells me:

“We are wary of becoming a business. We are a church with a foodbank. Just like we’ve got Guides, Boys Brigade, we’ve got a senior ladies group. We do Sunday morning breakfasts, a daily community café here as well, and a walk up food service on a Thursday. We’ve got a community bank. So the foodbank is one part of our overall activities within the church. We see ourselves as part of the community, and we don’t want to add [advice] services to the foodbank. That’s other people’s speciality.”

“In a city like ours, [those services] have got an office just round the corner and that’s their whole reason for being. We encourage people to go round the corner and see the right people to deal with their problems… We’re just in the middle passing food on. There are people who want to help hungry people, we are just doing the administrative work of making sure that food gets passed on to those people.”

In Leamington, the foodbank’s activities are also restricted, but less through design and more because of the limitations of funding. Three years ago they had someone from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau coming to the foodbank to give debt advice, but the funding has stopped for it. Andy Bowyer tells me: “My original vision was more of a one-stop shop kind of approach, which is why we started working with Citizens Advice Bureau. We had a similar thing last year… once a month an advisor from Severn Trent would come in and give water relief advice. Again, the money for that has gone. It all relies on government grants. So at the moment, the biggest thing we’ve got going on in a number of centres is that the church itself is running a community café at the same time as the foodbank, which opens half an hour before foodbank and closes half an hour before we close.”

In Coventry, the scale of the operation is very different. But the warehouse on Progress Way is about more than just distribution of food to the rest of the foodbank network. Alongside the crates of food, there are racks upon racks of clothing all sorted by age and sex. There’s a bike repair shop. And alongside the foodbank, Langley House have a building programme to re-train ex-offenders. In the individual foodbank centres across the city, there is a debt advice programme where Citizens’ Advice Bureau staff help people manage their money and claim back what they are owed.

Racks of clothing at Coventry Distribution Centre

Gavin Kibble is heavily involved in Feeding Coventry, a partnership of organisations which are aiming to tackle food poverty and create a sustainable food network across the city.  For Gavin, the food and services provided at the foodbank need to be connected up to broader efforts to tackle peoples’ problems: “For people in a chronic low income situation because they are on welfare or because they are on a zero hours contract, the foodbank is not the model for that kind of problem. The model for that is something like a community supermarket together with re-training or debt resolution or something else to deal with the underlying causes.”

As important as the food which the foodbank provides, is the ‘journey’ which those who engage with the foodbank embark upon:

“Our project manager, our van driver were both recipients of food and they are now paid workers here. We have some really specific target groups we want to work with – the long term unemployed, particularly men over 50, migrants, ex-offenders and the under 25s. And it is about giving them self-worth and self-esteem and giving them a skill set that will make them employable.”

Alec Spencer from the West Cheshire Foodbank explains how the charity wants to eliminate the need for a Foodbank. There are two key parts to their plan. The first is to resource other ‘meeting places’ to displace some of the need for foodbanks so that people can get support in a more dignified way.

Gavin Kibble is heavily involved in Feeding Coventry, a partnership of organisations which are aiming to tackle food poverty and create a sustainable food network across the city.

“The language we are using is ‘meeting places.’ Meeting places are a response to what we have learned over the last four years. The mechanics of the foodbank model work for the majority of people. They get food. But it doesn’t necessarily give people the level of dignity they would like. There is a level of stigma attached to the referral model. ‘Meeting places’ are much more open and inclusive and actively designed to maintain and add to peoples’ sense of dignity and self-worth. At the same time, our meeting places are active and participatory. So we tackle holiday hunger through holiday clubs which involve sport and games. We also have ‘Meet, Cook and Eat’ for single adults who have particularly complex and enduring needs and the activity we have there is making bread and soup together.”

Alongside the creation of new spaces, Alec also wants to give a voice to those who are experiencing poverty and visiting foodbanks.

“West Cheshire foodbank has a distinct identity as a campaigning organisation. We have a board of trustees who are very pro-advocacy. One of the things we helped set up was the West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission. The idea is simple. People struggling with poverty are the true experts on this, and must lead the way in designing and implementing solutions. That’s the only way we can achieve lasting social change. It would be ridiculous if the campaign for women to get the vote hadn’t included women. In the same way, people with experience of poverty are best qualified to advocate for changes to the structures that perpetuate that poverty.”

“Because of the Poverty Truth Commission in West Cheshire, people with lived experience of poverty are now working with key business and civic leaders, developing action plans that will tackle issues around mental health, benefit systems and how services can become more person-centred. I’m already seeing a change in people who are Commissioners. They are thinking that they might be able to influence people locally. That’s the start of us moving from a place where there is a disconnect from the decisions made up high, to a place where people can consider themselves to be activists, people who can create change and influence. That is a really exciting cultural shift.”

This vision is founded, in part, on the idea that foodbanks cannot create real change unless they tackle some of the structural problems which are leading people into poverty in the first place. Alec argues: “People need a real living wage, benefits increasing at the rate of inflation. If the amount of money people have just decreases and decreases that has an impact. No amount of asset-based community work will make up for the fact that people are getting poorer and poorer.”

Alongside the creation of new spaces, Alec also wants to give a voice to those who are experiencing poverty and visiting foodbanks.

West Cheshire is the last of the foodbanks I visit. On my journey home, I listen to radio coverage of the election campaign which is now in full swing.  It’s the second election in three years. Again, Britain’s foodbank network is on the political agenda. In 2015, Jeremy Paxman put it to David Cameron that 900,000 people taking Trussell Trust food parcels was testament to a “broken Britain”. This time around, Andrew Marr has asked Theresa May whether she wants to run a country in which “lots of ordinary nurses are using foodbanks by the end of the week because they can’t afford to pay for food.”

Theresa May’s response is that there are ‘“many complex reasons why people go to food banks”. Those “complex reasons” remain largely unexplored in the election debates on the radio. 2017 feels just like 2015. But within the Trussell Trust Foodbank network, more people that I have spoken to are now asking questions about the causes of food poverty, and wondering about the role they are playing in efforts to make that situation better.

Building a stronger consensus about what can be achieved through different forms of action is certainly possible.

Building a stronger consensus about (the limits of) what can be achieved through different forms of action is certainly possible. The underlying attitudes of people I met within the network makes me hopeful this can be achieved. Nowhere did I find an ‘us and them’ attitude of strivers and scroungers, residents and migrants, those who are deserving of help and assistance and those who are not. Everywhere I went, I met people who viewed anyone’s hunger as a problem that needed to be addressed. At the same time people were thinking deeply about their own role in alleviating the problems. That is a solid foundation on which to build.

Banner photo by James Harrison.