Opinion

Food banks are at breaking point. We need to change the script.

Food banks are under strain like never before. We need to rethink how we're helping people in poverty, says Sabine Goodwin

A volunteer sorts food donations at a food bank

A volunteer sorts donations at a food bank, but food parcels can’t fix poverty. Image: Mary Turner/IFAN/SUFRA

Over the last decade, calls at Christmas for food bank donations have become par for the course. Supporters have been encouraged to donate food and money in the spirit of the season, as if their act of generosity will solve the problem. There’s a feel-good factor to the entrenchment of food banks that fundraisers, celebrities, MPs and, ultimately, the government, have taken advantage of, inadvertently or not. 

But there’s an increasingly desperate backdrop to food bank appeals this year. The situation faced by many people up and down the country feels utterly hopeless. Large swathes of the population are doing their utmost to make ends meet against the odds. Meanwhile, independent food banks are running out of road as they are stretched beyond capacity by lack of donations, volunteer exhaustion and soaring demand.  

Maria Marshall, my colleague at the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan) put it to MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee hearing last week: “We all know that a charitable food aid approach doesn’t work. For the past 12 years there have been millions and millions of food parcels distributed to people who can’t afford to buy food, but food insecurity is continuing to rise.”

A recent trend brings this into stark relief. People who once donated to food banks are now in need of food aid themselves, stretching the already whisker-thin resources of grassroots providers. Food parcels can’t address poverty. They will only ever alleviate the symptoms of food poverty temporarily.

The secretary of state for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Mel Stride, recently made it clear in the House of Commons that “any element of food insecurity is too much.” Or, as he explained to Sky News last week, “one would hope we will get to a point where nobody needs to use a food bank”.

So it’s time for the government to take heed of their own DWP minister as well as DWP data. A cash-first or income-focused approach to food insecurity is paramount. Food insecurity recently decreased by 16 per cent in households on universal credit because of the temporary £20 weekly uplift. Food parcels don’t end food insecurity, income does.

It’s time for the government to act on the pleas of countless anti-poverty charities, academics and think tanks saying far more action needs to be taken to increase the incomes of people who are struggling the most this winter. Of course, it’s welcome that benefits have been uprated in line with inflation but there are four long months before this becomes a reality. Meanwhile, hunger, homelessness, destitution, and debt are growing at a rate of knots. And we know that April’s increase won’t suffice for too many low-income households, especially if impacted by a five-week wait for universal credit, benefit deductions, sanctions, the benefit cap, the two-child limit, and people who have no recourse to public funds. 

But we also need food aid charity fundraisers to take a joined-up approach to their appeals for donations and acceptance of grants. Government commitments are inadequate, food banks are at breaking point, and we know that trying to fill the ever-increasing gap won’t close it. So, it’s incumbent on organisations calling for help to simultaneously encourage donors as well as funders to help stop hunger from happening in the first place. Any remaining acquiescence of a food bank response to poverty needs to be cast aside.

There’s a myth that still needs to be busted – neither food parcels nor redistributed surplus food will solve poverty.

Food banks are caught in contradiction as they seek donations and grants for acts of charity which won’t ever do more than temporarily alleviate a person’s need for food. Sticking plaster food parcels can’t possibly solve poverty so the only way forward is to change the script. Ifan is urging people who want to help to take action towards tackling the root causes of poverty. We’re asking supporters to write to their MP calling for policies to reduce the food insecurity and poverty behind escalating food bank demand. And we’re asking funders to prioritise paying a real living wage as well as ensuring living hours.

There’s no question that food banks can’t avoid having to prepare for unprecedented levels of need coming their way. But appeal messaging needs to be loud and clear as to how we can bring this perpetual state of crisis to an end. We’d argue that food banks shouldn’t be needed and that campaigners, food bank teams, academics, elected representatives as well as donors and funders can all do something about this. There’s a myth that still needs to be busted – neither food parcels nor redistributed surplus food will solve poverty. And for any of us involved with food parcel supply, there needs to be 100 per cent honesty about the real solutions to the escalating poverty in our midst. 

Ifan has been reporting on our member food banks struggling to cope for months. We know, first and foremost, the answer is not more donations but a reduction in pressure on food banks through ensuring people have enough income not to need them. But for anyone able to donate to our members, alongside writing a letter to a local MP, we advocate for financial contributions rather than food donations, so that local food banks can use funding to help people in the most dignified ways possible. Likewise, we’re calling on funders and grant holders to take a flexible approach to funding the food aid frontline so that ultimately the food bank mould can be broken.

Financial donations and flexible funding allow food bank teams to give people options. They can cater for individual food needs or buy shopping vouchers and give these out to people in need of support or even distribute these to referring advice agencies to take food banks out of the equation. Purchasing vouchers also allows food banks to cut down on storage and transport costs. They can supply energy vouchers to households struggling with fuel bills too.

In fact, food banks don’t need to distribute food parcels at all – support can come in other guises, and we can start to change food banking conventions for good. It’s obvious that cash allows more dignity and choice. First and foremost, for people who are struggling to afford food. But also for food banks teams who can then, through financial donations, support people in a variety of ways.

As we head further into the worst winter in UK food bank history, there’s still hope we can prevent the permanent institutionalisation of food banks. So much progress has been made towards ending the need for food banks and food banks and other food aid groups are leading the way by making calls to end the need for their services.

But a collaborative approach and a shared vision of why a cash first approach to food insecurity matters are essential. The legions of people struggling to afford food are one part of the puzzle, campaigners as well as frontline staff and volunteers another. Of course, governments and employers have the key roles to play. But fundraisers, donors and funders make up a critical cohort in the food bank equation whose actions could propel forward any plans to end the need for food banks. 

Sabine Goodwin is co-ordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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