Social Justice

Are foodbanks making Britain's hunger crisis worse?

Don’t scoff – experts say normalisation of food poverty is at a tipping point, as figures show nearly twice as many food parcels are handed out than first feared. Joshua King investigates

Foodbank housing quiz

Match these numbers to the question: 1) 42 2) 66 3) 817 4) 13 a) In March, how many millions of pounds of the housing budget were MPs told had gone unspent? b) What percentage of all families accepted as homeless in England were found to be headed by single mothers? c) How many UK people held the same wealth as the 3.7bn poorest this year? d) What percentage was the rise in foodbank use announced by the Trussell Trust?

The scandal of widespread hunger has haunted Britain since the financial crash of 2008. Where food poverty was once unheard of, now foodbanks are an everyday reality for hundreds of thousands of people. Supermarkets and charities are battling to cut edible waste, but is that hard work actually putting food on the tables of hungry families?

New figures reveal 480,500 emergency food parcels were sent out in 2017-18 in Scotland, almost double previous estimates. Campaigners say this is the tip of the iceberg and warn studies in England and Wales will show the same trend. The numbers are so vast, and difficult to grasp, that we become inured to the brutal reality of food poverty. We put a few tins or packets of pasta in collection baskets without seeing the deep inequalities driving hunger in the UK.

A stark new warning claims we are in danger of ignoring those root causes by normalising foodbank use. It comes after the Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) held its annual conference in London last week. The GFN redistributes waste from the food industry and supermarkets which would otherwise go to landfill or to feed farm animals. Campaigners have accused big brands of institutionalising foodbanks and the dishing out of surplus food, which does little to tackle the crisis.

Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, is one of the 58 food poverty campaigners who signed a public letter condemning what they call corporatisation of a social injustice.

“Companies throwing free food at the problem of poverty risk normalising the use of foodbanks,” he warns. “Instead businesses should look at how they can contribute to ending the need for charitable food aid provision, starting with their own employees.”

He condemns the “travesty” of many food retail workers forced to skip meals or use foodbanks. “Progressive companies will seek to tackle root causes. There is not one simple solution, but as a starter how about paying staff and agency staff a real living wage, putting employees on sensible contracts, paying a fair rate of tax and ensuring the differential between lowest and highest pay is not excessive?”

Signatories of the letter stress some of the programmes do help the community. Excess food is given to school breakfast clubs and homeless and domestic violence shelters. Food wastage is reduced and those in desperate need get a meal that might not otherwise have been on offer. But tackling food waste is not the same as solving wider food poverty.

Supermarkets would just be throwing away money. It costs nothing.

“There is a strong business case for cutting food waste,” explains Pete Ritchie, co-founder of campaign group Nourish Scotland. “Supermarkets would just be throwing away money. It costs nothing. It’s like taking things to a charity shop you don’t want and saying you are being generous.”

He adds: “It distracts from the real causes of food poverty which are low income, a clunky benefits system and rising energy costs. The hype of using food waste is that there will be no hungry people. That’s not right. There’s a fundamental question of dignity. Why in the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world should some people be reliant on the food thrown away by others?”

Redistributing food waste offers a handout, but not a hand up.

As the biggest UK voice in foodbank provision, the decision by The Trussell Trust not to attend the GFN conference may seem surprising. Garry Lemon, director of policy at the network, explains: “As an organisation we’ve made [that] decision because it doesn’t align with our vision of a UK without poverty or hunger.

“Foodbanks are providing absolutely vital, compassionate support, but no charity can replace the dignity of having long-term financial security. That’s why we’re campaigning to create a future without foodbanks.”

He describes poverty as a “current” that leaves people adrift without money for life’s basic needs. “But this isn’t inevitable. We know what can anchor people against those tides and reduce the need for foodbanks – a benefits system that provides sufficient money and support to anyone who needs its help,” he adds. The Trussell Trust is campaigning for changes to the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment, which they say is driving people to foodbanks.

The GFN told us they do see foodbanks as a temporary solution. But while the movement may be divided over how to proceed, the spectre of a bleak future is already evident across the Atlantic.

Robert Egger founded DC Central Kitchen, the world’s first community kitchen, as well as Washington DC street paper Street Sense. He says the way foodbanks in the United States operate has taken the fight against food poverty down the wrong path.

“They call redistribution of food ‘fighting hunger’,” he says. “Feeding a person will always be right, but unless you work to decrease need you aren’t really fighting hunger, you’re making folks dependent on your programme.

“As Morrissey sang, they are now ‘hostages to kindness’.”

Established in 1989 to use food donated from the hospitality industry and provide jobs and training, DC Central Kitchen has provided
35 million meals and helped 1,500 people into work. Egger adds: “I’m a big believer in using food to liberate. This is why I signed the campaign letter. The foodbank system started off on the right journey but went down the wrong road.”

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