When did emergency food provision stop being so…emergency?

emergency (noun)

a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action

(English Oxford Dictionary)

Five years ago, food banks were rarely talked about or heard of. A few newspaper articles in the Guardian and Daily Mail reported on their presence in 2011, but the explosion in their popularity has been a much more recent phenomenon.

When the Trussell Trust announced it had handed out over one million emergency food parcels just weeks ahead of the 2015 general election, suddenly foodbanks were everywhere in the media. Debates arose over whether that one million figure represented unique users. The Trussell Trust was accused of presenting ‘misleading’ statistics. The Spectator implied that the Trust was deliberately misinforming the public and accused it of ‘playing fast and loose between the numbers of people using foodbanks, and the numbers of vouchers being handed out’. The actual experiences of people using foodbanks was absent from the coverage.

Fast forward two years, and the Trust recently released its latest figures, once again ahead of an election. Continuing the year-on-year trend, the number of people using foodbanks rose once again, this time by 6.4%. Yet the media reporting was somewhat lacking this time. Obvious suspects like the Guardian provided coverage, but there was no real outrage or shock at the fact that the Trust provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies, of which over 430,000 went to children. When did foodbanks stop being seen as ‘emergency’, and become part of our everyday lives?

The aim of these schemes is to give people the chance to obtain emergency food and other forms of support all in one location, in an attempt to remove access barriers and cut down waiting times.

When I began researching foodbank use in November 2013, I wanted to know what it was like for people who came to the foodbank – why were they there? How did they feel about it? And how was it, to walk through the church doors, distinctive red food voucher in hand? To find out, I trained as a volunteer at a Trussell Trust foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees, a town in North East England that has the highest geographical health inequalities within a single local authority in England – both for men (at a 17.3 year difference in life expectancy at birth) and for women (11.4 year gap in life expectancy).

Every week, I prepared the three days’ worth of food that goes into each parcel. I dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was signposted to where they needed to go, often making calls to various agencies for them myself. Twice a year, I volunteered at food collections at Tesco supermarkets, smiling in my Trussell Trust emblazoned tabard as I asked people to add an extra tin of chopped tomatoes to their weekly shop. Most importantly, I sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the food bank doors for emergency food.

Since writing a book based on my time at the foodbank, Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain in 2015, it seems that foodbanks are now more ubiquitous than ever. But they don’t appear to evoke the same shock or surprise that they did even just a few years ago. People have come to expect that foodbank use will rise every year. And thanks to the rollout of Universal Credit, which leaves people with no money for up to six weeks as standard, and further reforms to the social security system, it seems inevitable that it will continue to do so.

From the conversations that I had with people during my time as a volunteer, it’s clear that a whole range of things bring people to the foodbank, and that these reasons cannot be explained fully by a simple tick in a box on the red voucher. It is common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which lead to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons include ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy. Yes, the reasons can be multiple and complex – but that doesn’t mean the government should use this as an excuse for inaction, as Prime Minister Theresa May tried to do, when questioned on the Andrew Marr show about nurses using foodbanks.

Take Jimmy*. Jimmy, in his forties, had been to the foodbank five times in the past year. The first time I saw him at the foodbank, he came in with his sister and didn’t really say much. The next time he was on his own and happy to chat. Jimmy told me how he last worked in 2009 in a local plastics factory but had to leave due to sciatica in his back and legs. He had been receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but following a medical he was found fit for work. Jimmy was appealing the decision, as he has done successfully before, but was not claiming anything at all in the meantime. Zero. When I asked why he wasn’t claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, he shrugged: “I don’t want to go on JSA in case they keep me on it,” and said he would rather “struggle on with nothing”. His girlfriend, his sister and the foodbank have been helping with his meals. “The government want you to exist, not to live”, Jimmy told me sadly. “I would love to work, I hate being on benefits, but with my health problems I know I can’t work every day. It would finish me off”.

I also met Janice, 46, who was receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance after also being found fit for work, despite recently being diagnosed with depression, anxiety and arthritis. She was waiting for her Employment and Support Allowance appeal, and came to the foodbank because she’d been sanctioned. Janice explained how she was currently doing a Health and Social Care course at college. She had been sanctioned for missing her Jobcentre appointment because she was at college, on a course the Jobcentre had actually sent her on.

Her 11-year-old granddaughter wanted to know why she hadn’t been able to stay over for the last three weeks. Janice told me:

“I haven’t got enough food to feed myself, let alone feed her as well – how can you explain that to an 11-year-old?”

Janice hadn’t told her daughters how bad things had got as she didn’t want them to worry about her. She had debts, including priority debts such as Council Tax, which meant the bailiffs were always ringing up, or coming round banging on her front door. As we sat finishing off our cups of tea, her phone rang. She looked at the number flashing up on the screen and sighed. “See? I told you they always ring me up,” cancelling the call, as it was the bailiffs ringing her, yet again.

People like Jimmy and Janice are bound within multiple issues and problems. Debt, health problems, the ‘bedroom tax’, appeals to decisions on benefit entitlement. These issues frequently last longer than the time-limited support available from a Trussell Trust foodbank. Acknowledging this, the Trust itself has developed a ‘More Than Food’ initiative, which seeks to offer “support beyond food to help people in crisis break the cycle of poverty”. An ‘Eat Well Spend Less’ cookery course aims to teach people how to cook when on a low budget, and is available in 61 foodbanks in the network. Holiday Clubs providing children’s meals outside of term times will be hosted in up to 50 foodbanks within the next two years, thanks to funding from the Innocent Foundation. ‘Fuel banks’ have been piloted across the country in association with npower, with people who visit a participating foodbank receiving a £49 credit which they can use to top up their gas and electricity meter.

The aim of these schemes is to give people the chance to obtain emergency food and other forms of support all in one location, in an attempt to remove access barriers and cut down waiting times. But for most of the people I met, like Jimmy and Janice, the reasons that kept them returning to the foodbank were long-term, embedded structural factors such as low income, insecure work, or problems in accessing or sustaining their social security benefits.  If someone is on a 6 month sanction, they will inevitably need help for a longer period of time than someone who has experienced an acute problem. But is it not problematic to think of foodbanks as like community hubs- where people can then access further, long-term support? And are there alternative models? Can other charitable food projects offer solutions to these problems? Or do we need to look elsewhere?

Beyond the food bank model

Charitable food provision is now taking many guises. Church Action on Poverty are working with Stockport Homes to set up food pantries across Greater Manchester, following the success of such a scheme on the Brinnington estate. Members pay a weekly fee of £2.50 to shop once a week, choosing 10 items from a menu that might include baked beans, meat, cakes, frozen ready-meals, coffee, fruit, vegetables and milk as well as more unusual one-off products, such as marmalade or guacamole. Unlike food received from a Trussell Trust foodbank, there is no red voucher required; nor is there a time limit. Niall Cooper, the director of Church Action on Poverty says the pantry model aims to offer dignity and choice: “You have choice, within constraints. It’s not a normal shop, but it is close to a normal shop.”

The choice element is what I’m most interested in here. On a recent visit to the foodbank in Stockton, the volunteers were irritated that Trussell Trust had decided to remove 500g bags of sugar from the set shopping list. ‘Why can’t people have a sugar in their cup of tea? I like having sugar – why should people not be allowed to have that just because they’re using a foodbank?’ The others agreed, and I know from my time spent there that, often, a cup of tea or coffee laced with sugar gave people enough energy to skip a meal so their kids could eat instead, or so they could pay a gas bill. Clearly, that’s not healthy or advisable, but it’s reality for many people living on a low income. I contacted Trussell Trust to get their perspective on this, and they told me:

“Since the initial design of the standard food allocation, The Trussell Trust has commissioned reviews by nutritional professionals to ensure our advice to foodbanks meets the most up to date guidance. One of the dominant points from the combined conclusions of the most recent reports was that although sugar can be beneficial for people who simply haven’t been able to eat, the overall level of sugar in a standard parcel should be reduced. Adding sugar to a hot drink is a personal choice, and when you’re in a financial crisis it can feel like your ability to make choices has been completely taken away from you. Therefore, if people want to add a sugar to their tea or coffee, we should look to offer them that choice. If foodbanks wish to offer sugar as a ‘help yourself’ item for people to choose that’s fine, and if foodbanks need to ask for donations of sugar specifically so they can continue to do this then we completely understand. The only change is that we advise 500g sugar is not automatically put in a standard food parcel.”

Choice is a luxury I have plenty of. For people coming to the foodbank, though, choice is not something they are likely to be used to. They have no choice but to pay the ‘bedroom tax’. They have to sign on when they are told to or they will get sanctioned. They have to walk miles to the foodbank because they can’t afford the bus fare. And when they do get to the foodbank, they are handed a parcel of food that a volunteer has already picked out for them. There is little choice involved in any of their daily decisions. Community pantries and schemes which appear to offer a greater level of choice, combined with unlimited support, may be seen as a positive step towards alleviating the symptoms of poverty and insecurity faced by so many. But ultimately providing food in this way can carry a stigma. So is the redistribution of food waste a solution? Foodbank experts Elizabeth Dowler and Hannah Lambie-Mumford have warned of the drawbacks of this:

“The covert, tacit institutionalisation of charitable responses … runs the risk of contributing to these important issues and distinct dysfunctions in our food and socio-economic systems being sidelined and depoliticised, particularly through the rhetoric of solutions located in ‘proper use of resources’ at local levels.”

The underlying structural issues, such as low pay and insufficient benefits, still remain, and no amount of community pantries or emergency food provision from a foodbank can address this.

What does the future look like for foodbank Britain? 

Support for foodbanks has been overwhelming. Last year, some 40,000 people volunteered with Trussell Trust, and 11,175 tonnes of food were donated by the public in 2016/2017. At the Stockton foodbank alone, the December 2016 neighbourhood collection at Tesco brought in 3 tonnes of food, which took the volunteers weeks to sort, check dates, weigh, and stack onto the shelves. Many organisations are involved in the Trussell Trust foodbank network. Sainsbury’s, npower, Greggs, Unilever, Tesco, and Waitrose are all partners. As well as the Trussell Trust network, there are many independent food banks and emergency food aid providers across the UK. There are more than 30,000 registered charities in the UK dedicated to the prevention or relief of poverty. Pay-what-you-can cafes, community shops, and the food redistribution charity FareShare have all grown alongside the Trussell Trust model of food aid.

Many people are clearly happy to offer charitable assistance to food banks but this should not be to the exclusion of asking why, in one of the richest countries in the world, more than one million emergency food parcels were handed out last year. We need to remember that behind every tin of beans, bag of pasta or packet of sanitary towels, is a person with a reason for being there, and we need to listen to them. Who are they? And why are they there? What could have prevented them from needing to ask for emergency food in the first place? Not only that, but organisations that offer charitable food, in whatever guise – foodbanks, community shops, food pantries – must shout far and wide about the reasons these are needed to begin with. Church Action on Poverty’s End Hunger campaign is trying to raise awareness of the structural issues why people would need to seek food in this way, and urges people to write to their local MPs with key messages on how to stop hunger. Ken Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake has also placed these issues into the wider public consciousness, by documenting the cruel inefficiency of state bureaucracy and firmly linking the political to the personal struggles people are facing. But this isn’t enough.

The very definition of ‘emergency’ – ‘a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action’ – suggests that charitable food provision should be viewed as a distinctly shocking occurrence, and not an acceptable means of consumption. There are, of course, two sides to this. I’ve been asked many times before ‘But what if food banks weren’t there?’ Clearly, foodbanks, both Trussell Trust and independently-run, work hard – really hard – to respond to the ever-growing need of those who seek charitable food. I’ve seen the extra hours the volunteers put in, shopping around to find the cheapest items to stack the shelves with when stock is running low. There’s the emotional side of being a volunteer, too – it can feel devastating. The powerlessness of only being able to offer somebody a couple of bags of food to help them can feel tokenistic and just plain wrong.

The underlying structural issues, such as low pay and insufficient benefits, still remain, and no amount of community pantries or emergency food provision from a foodbank can address this.

People who have used the foodbank often told me their experience was a positive one, despite any initial fear and stigma of asking for emergency food they had. Many have since returned for a cup of tea and a chat. Some have trained to be volunteers following their initial visit to receive a food parcel. But in focusing upon the ‘good news’ element of foodbanks, the real reasons why people need to be there can be overlooked. We must focus our attention on the structural reasons why people are needing to seek emergency food aid in the first place – the lengthy benefit sanctions, the problems in accessing Universal Credit, the zero hours’ contracts that offer little in the way of financial security or peace of mind. Not to mention the difficulties in making sure your child has a school uniform, or you have enough money on the gas meter to cook a meal.

Going forward, we must listen – really listen – to the people that are using foodbanks, so that can we understand who they are, why they use them, and what it feels like. We need to mobilise against the reasons why almost 1.2 million food parcels are being given out, and challenge the idea that people use foodbanks because they can’t be bothered to cook a meal, or because they’ve spent all of their money on a 50-inch TV. How we create, maintain and express the collective shame that should be felt over the existence of ‘emergency’ food aid will be key to the future of emergency food provision in the UK.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

Banner photo by Fotoworkshop4You.