The Foodbank Dilemma

food bank image

“The Trussell Trust partners with churches and communities to open new foodbanks nationwide. With over 420 foodbanks currently launched, our goal is for every town to have one.” Trussell Trust Website

When I think about foodbanks now, more than anything else, I think about Louise.* Louise was the first person I ever met who talked to me about her experiences of using a foodbank. Six months later, it is still my meeting with Louise I return to time and again. As if making sense of that meeting can somehow help me unravel all the issues that I have wrestled with in the months that have followed, as I have visited foodbanks, talked to the people who run and use them, interviewed food experts, and read books, reports and articles, trying to understand the foodbank phenomenon.

I’m having lunch in the Hope Centre Café in Hillfields, a deprived area of North Coventry. The sun is streaming through the glass frontage into the clean airy space where we sit eating at sleek, moulded corporate tables and chairs. It feels like the kind of café you might find at a small conference centre. But the café is about to be transformed. Once a week, on a Friday afternoon, it becomes a place where local residents can come and receive a few shopping bags of provisions. This is what I now understand to be a Trussell Trust ‘foodbank centre’.

Hugh McNeil, the project manager of Coventry’s foodbank network is with me. With us are a journalist and photographer from the Independent newspaper. The café is already full of volunteers, bustling around. The atmosphere is upbeat, energised. We finish eating, and Hugh suggests we take a brief tour before the Centre opens its doors.

We leave the café and go down a narrow corridor, and arrive at a large storeroom. It’s full of middle-aged women talking animatedly and sorting through provisions stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. Tins of soup, packets of pasta, cartons of juice. Too many different foodstuffs for me to make sense of it all. My eyes are drawn instead to the numbers scrawled in black highlighter pen everywhere.

“What are the numbers for?” I ask Hugh.

“Those are the use-by dates.” He replies. “So we know when we have to use the food. You don’t want to give out food that is good until 2017, and then find that you have to throw away other tins and packets that have already gone off.”

“Most of the food comes from collections from Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s,” Hugh tells me. “The supermarkets allow us to give their customers a shopping list and we’re then relying on the generosity of the people of Coventry to go in and buy a couple of extra items and give them to us. Just the annual collection we do at Tesco for three days every July should bring us in around ten tonnes of food from across the city.”

“People do still donate at churches and other places. We literally have ten tonnes of beans. We have a ‘bean room’ at our central storehouse. People for some reason associate a foodbank with beans. But actually what we need is coffee, sugar, UHT milk, tinned fruit, tinned fish. A whole range of things. So we try and get the shopping list to people and ask them to buy from it. But whatever you do, you still get lots of beans.”

The Coventry Beans Room

The Coventry Beans Room

We leave the storeroom and go through a large hall at the back of the café, and out into a small back yard. A lorry is parked in the middle of the yard and younger men and women are sweating as they heave down crates. They are jobseekers, getting some work experience as foodbank volunteers. The crates are full of fresh fruit and vegetables. Hugh says they’ve been donated by Costco.

When we get back to the café, there are people sitting at almost every table. I quickly scan the room: these are the people who have come to use the foodbank. Some are already sipping tea and coffee while they wait. At one table a volunteer is asking a couple if they have children. Then “Are you a vegetarian?” She ticks boxes on a form, and soon scuttles off to prepare three days’ worth of provisions, tailored to the couple’s needs.

There is a table set out by the entrance of the café, full of forms and papers. Tony, the volunteer co-ordinator, is greeting two new arrivals. A young clean-shaven man leads an older, grey-haired, battered-by-life-version-of-himself to where Tony stands. Tony greets them kindly and asks the younger man who referred them to the foodbank.

There’s a moment of startled silence. Then the younger man says gruffly, “It’s not for me, it’s for my dad”, and looks down at the floor. The colour flushing his face makes clear his embarrassment.

The older man appears confused until his son tells him to hand over the piece of paper he’s holding in his hand. It transpires he’s been sent to the Foodbank by a debt councillor at Whitefriars, Coventry’s largest provider of social housing. Tony takes a note of some numbers. All seems in order. He tells them to take a seat and someone will be over to see them shortly.

A Food package

A Food package. Image by Lottie Stoddart

A typical Trussell Trust Foodbank three day food package for a single person: 1 small cereal, 2 standard soup, 2 small beans, 2 small tomatoes, 2 small vegetables, 2 small meat, 1 small fish, 2 small fruit, 1 rice pudding, 1 packet biscuits, 500g sugar, 500g pasta, 40 bags tea/coffee, 1 carton juice, 1 milk UHT

Hugh explains to me how the system works. “People are referred by specialist agencies from across the city,” he says. “We work with over 250 agencies including churches, schools, housing agencies, GP’s surgeries and hospitals. Each person is entitled to 3 vouchers over a six month period. And each voucher entitles them to 3 days of food. We are there to help people with short-term crises. We aren’t the long term solution to people’s problems.”

Hugh asks me if I want to meet some of the clients. I hesitate. More than anything else, this is what I have come for: to talk to people who use the foodbank, to understand why they have come and how they feel now that they are here. But suddenly I feel awkward and unsure, as if I’m pushing myself into the midst of a very private and sensitive process. At the same time, I see the journalist and photographer buzzing round the room talking to people and asking for pictures. I steel myself and agree to Hugh’s offer.

He approaches a small, slight young woman, who is sitting crumpled and small on a chair in the corner. They talk. Even at a distance, I can tell that his infectious enthusiasm is beginning to win her over. She slowly unfurls, brightening and then, a nod. Hugh beckons me over, introduces me; Louise is happy to have a chat.

“School holidays are the hardest time because you have to feed your children three times a day. That’s why I am coming here now,” she begins.

“The foodbank is wonderful. Normally I shop only from the value range and often I go round a couple of different supermarkets for the cheapest bargains so I can make my money stretch. And it’s all tinned and frozen stuff – beans, pasta, that kind of thing. No fresh fruit or vegetables.

“Normally I eat porridge in the morning to fill myself up and then often I don’t eat at all myself in the evenings. But today is the start of the kids’ holidays and so they don’t get the school meals, they have to eat all their food at home and I just can’t manage, and so the foodbank is a lifeline.”

Louise is a single mother with two young children. She has always found it a struggle to make ends meet, she says, and then she lost her Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance and was deemed fit for work. There is a garbled tale of an interview that went horribly wrong. She looks down at her feet.

She brightens again as she tells me about winning her appeal against the decision. But the appeal took six months and she’s still waiting for the payout. In the meantime, she has struggled to feed and clothe her two children and pay all the bills. The school holidays and the extra financial pressure they bring were the final straw. That’s what brought her here today.

At one point the journalist from the Independent comes over to see if I’m finished. She sits for a while, notepad poised. But she realises that we have wandered off foodbanks and onto our very different experiences of parenthood, and she drifts off again. Louise grows in confidence as she tells her story. I wonder if, as a single mother, Louise ever talks about her problems to anyone other than Jobcentre staff, lawyers and healthcare professionals.

The only other way to get something nice like that is to talk to the local shoplifter who can get you a nice piece of meat at a price you can afford.

“The Foodbank is great because there are a couple of nice puddings and a pizza in there, some cornflakes and chocolate biscuits. Stuff I would never normally be able to buy. The only other way to get something nice like that is to talk to the local shoplifter who can get you a nice piece of meat at a price you can afford. People do use him, but you can’t really blame them. Like my neighbours. They’ve been to the foodbank too. They both work. But they never know how much work they’re going to get, and sometimes it’s just not enough. It’s horrible not being sure you can put food on the table for your family.”

And then a smiling foodbank volunteer comes over, weighed down with shopping bags. Louise’s eyes light up as the woman puts the bags down in front of her. They sag outwards to display their contents. I see Louise catch sight of the bright shiny wrapping paper of two Easter Eggs perched on a solid base of soup, beans and pasta. She blinks back the tears. For a moment I think she will break down and fall into the volunteer’s arms. But she settles for a series of heartfelt ‘thank yous’. The volunteer smiles again, a real joyful bottom-of-the-heart-smile this time.

Louise thanks me for the chat. We awkwardly wish each other well for the future. And she is off, out of the bright glass doors of the café and up the street. I am left thinking about Louise’s story, the story of her neighbours, and the feeling of joy we all felt when her food arrived.

Hungry Britain

There have always been people in Britain who are hungry. And for centuries there have been attempts to feed them. The soup kitchens of the late 18th Century, which sprung up as a response to the ruptures caused by the industrial revolution, were replaced by the workhouses of the 19th century. Today charitable food aid comes in many shapes and sizes. From school breakfast clubs to evening soup runs, from lunches at drop in centres for rough sleepers to “meals on wheels” for the elderly. Food aid is provided in a myriad of different forms to an equally wide range of different groups across modern Britain.

Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that more than 20 million meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013-14 by the three main food aid providers. But that does not take into account any of the foodbanks, soup kitchens, breakfast clubs and other forms of food aid that are run locally. Professor Liz Dowler is one of the authors of a report that recently reviewed emergency food aid provision in the UK for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The report concludes that “it is impossible at present to give an accurate estimate of the numbers of people fed by charitable food aid providers in the UK…”

The truth is we simply have no idea of the extent of who is providing emergency food aid and who is receiving it. Professor Dowler explains to me that this situation is part of a wider problem inherent in trying to understand issues of food insecurity.

“Not having enough food is a very private issue. It is a private sector issue. Food production, distribution and even the regulation of food does not involve the government a great deal. It is an issue of private shame. People eat mostly within the home, and so what people eat, and the ways in which it is inadequate, people keep to themselves. And it is an issue of private suffering. If you are not getting enough food, or the right kind of food, you absorb the misery yourself. The cost is embodied by you. It is your body that becomes unhealthy.”

Food poverty is not then a natural headline-grabber. But recently the rise of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Network has brought the issue of hunger and its causes into the public consciousness.

The Trussell Trust was launched in 1997 by Paddy and Carol Henderson to improve conditions for homeless children in Bulgaria. While fundraising back home in Salisbury in 2000, Paddy received a call from a local mother whose children were going to bed hungry that night. He realised she wasn’t alone and so he started Salisbury foodbank in his garden shed and garage. The foodbank provided three days of emergency food to local people in crisis.

But it was clear to Paddy and Carol that the problems affecting some of Salisbury’s residents were not unique to that city. In 2004, the Trust created a not-for-profit social franchise so that foodbanks could be set up elsewhere. The model is a relatively simple one. The Trust manages the network. Local groups (mostly coalitions of churches) obtain franchises to run foodbanks in their town by making an initial donation and then an annual contribution to the Trust. The Trussell Trust provides support and training in setting up and running the foodbank. And they audit each foodbank annually to make sure they are meeting the network’s standards.

A month before the election of the coalition government in 2010, there were 54 Trussell Trust foodbanks in Britain. Four years on, there are now around 420 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s an average of more than 90 foodbanks opening in new towns across the country each year.

But Adrian Curtis, the Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network Director, tells me that the “420 foodbanks” figure is increasingly misleading, and fails to capture the true rate of growth in the network:

“We tend to talk more now about ‘foodbank centres’ when measuring the size of the network. There are around 420 foodbanks in Britain. But many of those foodbanks are now operating at a number of different centres where people can come and receive food. We estimate that there are around 1,400 foodbank centres now.

“There are still one or two new foodbanks opening in new towns each week. But growth in new foodbanks has slowed. The real growth is in the number of foodbank centres which are being opened by each existing foodbank. There are as many new centres opening as ever before.”

So for instance, Coventry Foodbank counts as a single ‘foodbank’, but now has sixteen centres which give out food at various locations around the city seven days a week. Overall, the Trussell Trust has created a network that in ten years has grown from scratch to having more ”branches” than Lloyds Bank. And these branches are not empty. Most important of all is the number of people the network is feeding. The Trussell Trust estimate that they fed 900,000 people last year (a 163% rise on the previous year). They haven’t been doing it quietly.

Initially the coalition government appeared relaxed, even positive, about the growth of the foodbank network. David Cameron was said to be particularly enthusiastic. After all, this was the Big Society in action. Communities coming together to provide for each other, without the need for government to get involved at all. Ian Duncan Smith was also said to be “very keen”, and wanted staff in jobcentres to be able to direct claimants to foodbanks “because of the difference it could make to their lives.”

But then the Trussell Trust started to get “political”. They went public with figures that showed more than half of their clients were receiving food because of benefit delays, sanctions, and financial difficulties relating to the bedroom tax and abolition of council tax relief.

“The reality is that there is a clear link between benefit delays or changes and people turning to food banks, and that the situation has got worse in the last three months”, said the Trussell Trust executive chairman, Chris Mould. “We are calling on the government to listen to what’s happening on the ground, to realise that when the welfare system breaks down, it means families go hungry.”

But the government did not want to listen. It wanted to fight back. Chris Mould reported that the government had privately threatened the Trussell Trust with closure. Publicly, government officials sought to shift the blame elsewhere for the growth in the network.

Initially, the Trussell Trust themselves were blamed. Ian Duncan Smith denied the links between welfare reform and use of foodbanks and suggested that the Trussell Trust were merely seeking publicity as part of their business model to promote their own growth. Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, suggested this was a supply rather than a demand led issue; if foodbanks are set up, people will use them. A senior DWP official argued, in a similar vein, that the network was primarily serving its own needs, not those of the community: “For the Trussell Trust, foodbanks started as an evangelical device to get religious groups in touch with their local communities.”

More recently, blame has also been apportioned to the individuals who use foodbanks. Michael Gove suggested that people who rely on foodbanks do so because they are unable to properly manage their finances. A Mail on Sunday investigation argued that many of those using foodbanks were doing so fraudulently. In an article headlined: “No ID, no checks… and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims”, an undercover Daily Mail reporter pretended he was unemployed and struggling for food and was given food parcels without having to substantiate his claims. Other undercover reporters found evidence of “repeat users” and flouting of rules about how many food parcels individuals could receive.

Across the political divide in the Labour Party, the rise in the use of foodbanks is seen very differently. Foodbanks have been a key weapon for Ed Milliband in his cost-of-living offensive against the government. According to Labour, welfare reform combined with low wages and spiralling costs of basic goods and services are driving people to foodbanks.

The contentiousness of the issue, and the lack of progress in dealing with it, has led Frank Field MP to set up a Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty to “investigate the root causes behind hunger, food poverty and the huge increase in demand for food banks across Britain”. The Inquiry includes both Labour and Conservative MPs. But the widely publicised disagreement over what is causing the surge in the use of foodbanks means there is scepticism about whether they will be able to reach a consensus on root causes or agree on what should be done in the future.

National Organisation, Local Imagination

The Trussell Trust may operate on a franchise model, but this is not McDonalds. Foodbanks will never make profits. And so when a local church group make the decision to set up a foodbank, they make use of whatever resources they can get their hands on. Primarily that means the time of volunteers, the food and other goods that are donated, and the spaces that the local community can provide. Each foodbank is unique. Shaped to the contours of the available spaces, the numbers of clients they serve, and the ingenuity of the people who run them.

In my local area, there are three foodbanks. Coventry is by far the largest. Its sixteen foodbank centres are served by a central distribution centre. The food is collected and stored by a team of paid workers and volunteers in an old Methodist church hall. On the day I visit, they are talking about concreting over the narrow cracked path up to the church’s main entrance. They need easier access for the tonnes of food that come in and out of the church each month.

Foodbank distribution centre, Coventry

Foodbank distribution centre, Coventry

Inside, workers stack the food as it arrives, and then sort it into date order in the main hall of the old church (apart from the beans of course, which have their own room). Food is stacked in boxes, and placed on vast racks that cover the whole room. The crosses on the wall above the mountains of tins and packets are a powerful symbol of the religious origins of the foodbank movement, of dwindling congregations and adaptive imagination. In a back room, they are diversifying into clothes, and although it is early days, they already have enough stock for a small charity shop.

In Kenilworth, six miles south of Coventry, there is another foodbank. In size and scope, it could not be more different. The town is small with a population of just over 20,000. It’s relatively affluent. Kenilworth has a single foodbank centre housed in the Town Council Buildings, at the site of the old police station. All the food is stored and distributed there. Twice a week it opens its doors to local residents who receive their supplies in a small council office upstairs. The food is kept in the basement, packed into the old police station cells that were used to hold overnight prisoners.

“It’s the basic basket here mostly. We don’t do fresh food,” Les Thornton, the warehouse manager tells me. “We do sometimes get cakes, puddings that kind of thing. We get rid of them quickly before they go off.

“Our foodbank opened in August 2012. We saw the need at our churches and through other agencies like the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. When we opened, we were getting half a dozen or so clients a week. Gradually it increased. We were serving Warwick and Leamington as well at that stage. But it’s quieter again now that the Warwick and Leamington foodbank has opened.”

Kenilworth Foodbank

Kenilworth Foodbank Storeroom

Warwick and Leamington are two bigger towns which are effectively a single conurbation, five miles south of Kenilworth. Around 80,000 people live there. There are bigger pockets of deprivation than in Kenilworth. The foodbank opened last year and already has five distribution centres in churches, community and childrens’ centres across the town. The food is stored centrally.

Andy Bower, a former chef who owned two Italian restaurants before they went bust during the recession, manages the Leamington Foodbank network. The racking he used in his restaurants has now taken up residence in the garage where the food is stored. He tells me, “Up until the end of last year, we were distributing 250 to 300 kilos per week out to the five centres. We are now distributing 450 to 500 kilos. I can’t see us getting smaller any time soon.”

When I visit, Andy is excited at having just secured funding for an advisor from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to come in and talk to clients. The advisor hands the clients a pamphlet entitled ‘Making the Most of Your Money?’ and offers them an opportunity to talk through their financial issues.

Franchises like this exist up and down the country. They operate the same basic model, involving three days of emergency food accompanied by cups of tea or coffee, the opportunity to chat to volunteers, and the signposting of other services and funds that the clients might find useful. But there is never-ending variety in terms of the physical space that they occupy, the add-on goods they can provide beyond the basic food package, and the services they are starting to develop.

On a trip to Scotland, I visit a foodbank in Edinburgh. I meet up with Arthur Mathieson, the operations manager of the Edinburgh North East Network, based in Leith (really a separate town from Edinburgh, Arthur tells me). Again I find a tale of local church communities identifying a need and using their communal resources to set up a local network with its own individual local hallmarks.

“My church have been doing a Sunday breakfast ‘soup kitchen’ for almost 25 years,” Arthur says. “But with tougher times we saw that there were different types of people who needed our help, and more people who were struggling to get by. And so we set up the foodbank here.”

Arthur says that his foodbank is relying more on food from the local congregations and less on food collected at local supermarkets than other foodbanks. There is more of a struggle to ensure they have the full Trussell Trust three-day food parcel. But, through a network of volunteers, five days a week, churches and community centres open their doors in and around Leith to provide food.

The foodbank centre we visited was in Pilrig’s St Paul’s Church. Church pews and an altar are an imposing backdrop to the make-shift café set up in the church’s entrance. The volunteers are a little older, and the extras provided are more focused on basic toiletries like toothbrushes, soap and nappies for the many young families who seek assistance.

Arthur says, “Staff doctors from the local medical centre donate a box of toiletries to us every so often.” Different local contacts, different basic needs that the Foodbank are able to satisfy.

A Last Resort

While there are endless subtle varieties in the way different foodbanks operate, there is one fundamental similarity in the reasons why people use them. Professor Dowler and her colleagues, in their report to DEFRA, found that people turned to food aid as “a strategy of last resort”, when they have exhausted all other possibilities, including cutting back on food and turning to family and friends. No one I met used a foodbank lightly. Louise had been skipping dinners for months before she went to Coventry Foodbank. She finally attended so she could feed her children during the school holiday. Others displayed the emotional and physical efforts of their visits in a variety of different ways.

In Edinburgh, I saw a young woman break down into floods of tears when the food was brought out. She was overwhelmed by the idea that she could feed her family properly that night. Another man, too shy to talk to me, told the volunteers he had walked miles across the city to get a referral and then a few miles more for his food that afternoon. He didn’t have enough money for the bus fare. He sat, exhausted, cradling a cup of tea, rocking backwards and forwards, before making the same trip home again. This time laden down with his bags of food.

Alan, a man who had suffered a delay in his benefits payments, said: “I had an emergency payment of £70 or so more than a month ago. But that has mostly gone. I am down to the last pound or so on my electricity card and I am really starting to worry about that. And so I have been going to bed really hungry for a week or so. It’s my second trip. I was really worried about coming the first time. I was ashamed, but everyone has made me feel so welcome, and told me not to worry. This time I feel more comfortable. I hope my benefit issues will get sorted out soon so I don’t have to come again. But I can’t be sure.”

Sometimes talkative, sometimes silent, sometimes overwhelmed, time and again I witnessed reactions that suggested that foodbanks are indeed a place of last resort, driven by demand from desperate people, not “consumers” making choices to try the Foodbank this week as a cheaper alternative to Tesco. That doesn’t mean some people won’t try to use foodbanks fraudulently. But the one example I saw only made me more certain that abuse of the system is very much a minority pursuit.

John was only the second client to come into Leamington foodbank on the day I visited. But he made the church café feel three times as full. As everyone else sat quietly, he paced up and down nervously, saying that the heat in the place was making him sweat. He came and sat down with me. Without prompting, he told me a rambling story of how his tent had been set on fire by kids last night. His food, clothes and money were gone. Enough cash for a bus ticket and he’d be back up north where he belonged.

Compared with every other foodbank client I had met he was excessively keen to justify his presence. His clothes looked too clean for a man living in a tent and whose worldly possessions had just been destroyed in a fire. Eventually his bags of food were produced. He haggled for a couple of extra cartons of juice and left with loud goodbyes, still complaining about the heat.

As he left, another client shouted “druggie” after him. Visibly upset, the other man explained to those who remained in the café that John would be selling the food for drugs later on. The tale John told me was probably the one he used to obtain his referral to the Foodbank in the first place. But John was the exception that proves the rule. His emotional reaction to being in the foodbank was so different to all the other people I met.

I’m sure others are “defrauding” the foodbank like John. If you have a powerful story of suffering which you can tell your doctor, or your debt advisor or your lawyer, the chances are you probably will get a referral, whether the story is true or not. But if you watch and talk to the people who actually come into foodbanks in large numbers, you realise that there is a more important story to tell. And report after report from people on the frontline has found that the vast majority of people who use foodbanks are doing so because they are struggling to cope.

Papering over the cracks?

At the heart of Louise’s story was a benefit sanction, a successful appeal and a long wait for everything to get sorted again. The Trussell Trust’s figures show that half of all referrals to foodbanks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes. It’s these kind of figures that led Chris Mould, the Trust’s Chairman, to protest very publicly about the “broken” benefits system. And it points to a dilemma at the very heart of the foodbank phenomenon.

I met Jimmy in Coventry Foodbank. Like Louise and many others I spoke to, a benefit sanction was the reason for his visit. But in his case, it was a government agency that had sent him. He told me, with an air of bewilderment, that he had signed for the wrong date on his job searches. And because this was his second ‘offence’, he had received a three month “sanction” (his benefits were stopped). He was waiting for a hardship payment that he thought wouldn’t come through for a couple of weeks. He had been given his Foodbank voucher by the Job Centre that had sanctioned him.

For Sue Bent, the Director of Coventry Law Centre, which serves the same areas of deprivation as Coventry’s Foodbank network, Jimmy’s is the kind of case that makes her worried about the role the Foodbank Network is playing.

“Even before welfare reform started, people were struggling to heat their homes, or choosing between heating and eating. We saw many people living very sparse existences. And then welfare reform has meant that, for a lot of those people, their benefits are being cut in order to make work pay. And at the same time they are being asked to comply with a whole series of requirements in order to keep those benefits, which for some people is very difficult. This is sometimes because they’ve led a fairly chaotic lifestyle and are not used to dealing with those kind of constraints and requirements.

“There may be some benefits to some of these people if they do get their lives together and get in the job market as a result of being encouraged to become less chaotic. But the sanctions that are applied when they do not comply, they are just adding another level of harshness and making things worse for most of them.

“I don’t think that the punitive approach to getting people to a better place is going to work for most of our clients. And, I don’t think foodbanks trying to make it less bad is the solution either.

“Foodbanks are papering over the cracks. Now you don’t want to see those cracks appearing. You don’t want to see people fall off a cliff. But the fact that the Job Centre refers people to food banks is quite shocking in itself. The State is supposed to make basic provision for someone not to be destitute. But we have created a system in which that is part of the outcome. You are left with nothing, and then the State gets round that by referring you to a foodbank where other people have given food that you can scrape by on.”

You are left with nothing, and then the State gets round that by referring you to a foodbank where other people have given food that you can scrape by on.

These concerns resonate within the church communities that are providing emergency food aid. A report from Oxford Diocese collected evidence from across the Thames Valley region. It found that “many [who run emergency food aid initiatives] were worried and concerned that, whilst helping individuals, they may be fuelling a larger political problem by colluding with injustice and letting the government off the hook for leaving many of its people without the means to feed themselves and their families.”

Adrian Curtis, the Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network Director points out that only 2% of their referrals come from Jobcentres. But I am not sure this gets to the heart of the issue. Does it matter who makes the referral? Whether it is the Jobcentre directly, or someone’s doctor, debt advisor or lawyer? Isn’t the real issue that, whoever sends them, people who are left destitute by the State are being fed by charity from the foodbanks. Is this letting the government off the hook?

Adrian is keen to emphasise that the Trussell Trust is about a great deal more than “the re-distribution of food to people in need”. On benefit reform, they have played an important role in advocating on behalf of those people who are suffering as a result of the system. They will continue to do so, he says.

At this point my head starts to swim. How do we measure the impact of the Trussell Trust’s advocacy on welfare reform against the fact that it is reducing the pressure on government by feeding many of its “victims”?

There is a tendency to respond to this dilemma by invoking the immediate alleviation of suffering. Andy Bower in Leamington says: “I do feel like we are becoming another arm of the welfare state. And that does worry me a bit. But we are fulfilling a very basic Christian ministry of ‘when I was hungry, you gave me food.”

When is a crisis just a chronic struggle to survive?

For many foodbank clients, there is a crisis they can (perhaps) overcome. For others the situation looks more complex. When Louise gets the payout from her appeal, there is at least hope she will be able to make ends meet again. But what about her neighbours? They both work. But they are never sure how much work they will get, never sure if they will have enough money to pay the bills and feed the family. Is emergency food aid an appropriate response to their problems?

I met Simon in Coventry Foodbank. He’s a security guard with a wife and two children. He told me that when he got a job these days it was always on a zero hours contract, and so did not guarantee he could pay the bills. He had made 30-40 job applications over the last three weeks. But he didn’t envisage having a job any time soon that would provide a stable income, pay the bills and put food on the table. For Simon, as for Louise’s neighbours, the situation is not so much a one-off crisis, as a continual struggle to survive.

Use of foodbanks is fuelled by a complex set of factors. A report by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty, and the Trussell Trust itself has argued that it is driven by “a perfect storm of changes to the social security system, benefit sanctions, low and stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hours contracts and rising food and energy prices.” Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Liz Dowler, in their research, identify precarious housing circumstances, indebtedness and high-interest pay-day loans as additional factors.

many of the people who use foodbanks are not in crisis, but hanging on by their fingernails.

Professor Dowler tells me that “many of the people who use foodbanks are not in crisis, but hanging on by their fingernails. Hit by wave after wave of problems.” The Trussell Trust’s own figures support this idea. Almost 30% of people who use Trussell Trust Foodbanks give the primary reason for their visit as low income or debt. There are even more for whom these issues are in the background of their more immediate crisis situation. Is the Trussell Trust approach appropriate for dealing with these longer term struggles?

Sue Bent argues, “It’s an issue that you can have only three lots of food. While that is completely understandable as a model, it implies that you just need to tackle short term crises, and many of these people are not living in a crisis, they are living in a permanent place of hardship. And so again, there is a further de-humanisation, which I do not think is intended by the foodbanks. The implication is you have three packages and you should be alright. But for a lot of people, actually, the situation is that they won’t be alright after three packages because it is an ongoing, very harsh situation that they are trying to survive in. It is very difficult.”

When I put this issue to Adrian Curtis, he tells me that the UK foodbank network is also about attempting to deal with the underlying issues behind the crises:

“The Trussell Trust network now work with more than 20,000 expert agencies who refer their clients to foodbanks. Our partnership with these organisations can really help.

“We want to grow in our relationships with these organizations so that we can help people to deal with debt issues, to teach them to budget and to eat healthily, to help them to cope better.

At the end of the day, we want to see more foodbanks with less people using them.

This new approach is starting to catch on. I saw evidence of it in Leamington where they had a CAB debt advisor talking to the Foodbank’s clients. Coventry were working on a partnership with the CAB to provide advice on benefits and they also wanted to start doing cookery classes. A six-figure donation by money saving expert Martin Lewis is paying for a pilot financial advice scheme in six Trussell Trust foodbanks. The hope is that this will then become a blueprint for a model that can be rolled out nationally.

It’s clearly a good idea to give people the opportunity to gain life skills which will make them better financial planners or allow them to cook better meals. But is Michael Gove right that the primary blame for the foodbank phenomenon lies with peoples’ individual financial failings?

Professor Dowler argues that: “Research shows that the key causes of hunger and food poverty are structural – how much money people can spend on food, what it costs them, and whether or not they have equipment and fuel to store and cook it – rather than individual characteristics, such as whether people know what to buy and eat, can budget and cook well.”

When I talk to people in the movement about these deeper root causes of food poverty, time and again, I hear people compare food aid to first aid. Chris Mould has said:

“We get challenged a lot on being a sticking plaster. But we’re not trying to solve the root causes – other agencies have that responsibility. But I always ask people ‘Do you believe in first aid?’ Ambulances don’t work on accidents being prevented, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish ambulances. It just means we need other systems to look at root causes.”

If hundreds of thousands of people who had never needed ambulances before suddenly started calling for them, then government would be examining the reasons behind this very seriously. But is anyone doing this in relation to the hundreds of thousands who are starting to use emergency food aid?

Looking beyond the hunger issue

In her book Sweet Charity, Janet Poppendieck tells the tale of the great US cheese giveaway in the winter of 1981. She recounts how three days before Christmas, President Ronald Reagan authorised the distribution of 30 million pounds of government surplus cheese by volunteers across the country. A media frenzy reported on long queues of people waiting hours in the freezing cold for a 5-pound brick of cheese. The queues were so long that some people left empty-handed. Others received cheese that was mouldy.

Popendieck talks of this incident as one of the catalysts for the explosion of emergency food aid in the US in the 1980s. Volunteers returned to their communities convinced of the need for emergency food aid. The great cheese giveaway and every subsequent hunger-related event “helped to reinforce the definition of the problem as hunger in the public mind.”

The underlying social and economic dynamics of 21st century Britain eerily echo what occurred in the US of the 1980s. According to Poppendieck

“The cutbacks and reductions in [US] public assistance benefits, along with declining wages at the bottom end of the pay scale, increasing shelter costs, and a growing reliance on layoffs and downsizing to increase profitability are reducing people to destitution and sending them to the food lines. These changes are causing the hunger to which kind-hearted people are responding with pantries and kitchens.”

More than 30 years on, food insecurity now affects almost 1 in 6 people in the US. In 2013, the US Department of Agriculture reported that 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households. Feeding America, the US’s largest distributor of emergency food aid claims to provide food assistance to an estimated 46.5 million people annually. People are as hungry as ever and, at the same time, emergency food aid provision is happening on a vast scale.

Poppendieck provides a compelling account of the power of the food issue to draw in assistance from across the community. “Fighting hunger is the non-partisan, inclusive, ecumenical goal that we can all agree upon,” she writes, and she goes on to examine the ways in which people and institutions from across US society were inspired to contribute to the efforts to feed the nation; from boy scouts groups to the United Steel Workers of America, from Coca Cola to CitiBank, organisations across the US rushed to support the cause.

And at the heart of those efforts were the volunteers who kept coming back because, as emergency food aid providers told her, “It feels so good … you see the results right away. Someone comes in the door hungry, and you give him something to eat. That’s what it is.”

I felt those same sensations. It was impossible not to be moved by Louise’s joy when her bags arrived. And time and again I heard from those who work in the network about the power of the food issue to move people, to make them feel compassion and solidarity with those in need. I heard from elderly members of church congregations who lived through the scarcity of the 1940s and 50s and wanted to help those facing hunger and poverty today. I heard from a younger generation, some of whom had been helped by the foodbank themselves, and later returned to volunteer.

Arthur Mathieson explains it like this: “Foodbanks register with people big style. If we were doing something else we would not have got the number of people involved from the local congregations. There is something so basic about food. It strikes a chord with so many people. And in the supermarkets, we get so many people coming up and saying well done.”

Beyond the individual volunteers and donors of food, I also began to get a sense of the extent to which organisations up and down the country are becoming involved in the provision of emergency food aid. Adrian Curtis told me about the 20,000 organisations who act as referral agents for foodbanks. Then there are the large supermarkets – Tesco’s, Morrison’s, Waitrose, Asda, Co-op, and Sainsbury’s – happy to partner up with foodbanks and allow their customers to donate the food they buy. I heard about companies like HSBC, Severn Trent Water and Peugeot who allow their workers to volunteer at foodbanks as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes, and others like National Power and Volvo who organise food collections among their staff. And I heard about the local Rotary Club, and the County and District Councils who provide funding towards foodbank programmes and activities.

These are just anecdotal examples, plucked from conversations with foodbank managers and volunteers. But I suspect that what is really happening here is what Poppendieck observed in the US – the institutionalisation of foodbanks, “the movement from shoestring to stability”, “the process by which an arrangement, a programme, an activity becomes a predictable part of society.”

The Trussell Trust are very aware of the US foodbank phenomenon and are keen to stress the differences. The issue is flagged up in one of nine “rumour responses” that they provide on their website. Unlike the US, the Trussell Trust say they discourage reliance on foodbanks by offering “a time-limited crisis intervention based on a referral system with food vouchers signed off by front-line care professionals.” Trussell Trust foodbanks also direct people to support that can help them with their longer-term problems.

But are these differences sufficient to avoid foodbanks becoming a permanent feature of the British landscape? Once every town in Britain has a foodbank, and there is institutionalised support for them from a myriad of agencies and corporations, will we really be able to find a way of making sure they are used less and less? Will we be able to look beyond the hunger issue and see foodbanks as the canary in the mine, a warning that there may be something very wrong with the economic and social model we are pursuing in Britain today?

When I think about these questions, my mind goes back time and again to my meeting with Louise. Does all the kind-hearted effort that goes into feeding Louise and her neighbours now, make it more likely or less likely that she will need help again in the future?

* Some of the names have been changed to protect identities.

Original artwork by Lottie Stoddart