Opinion

Food banks face a hard winter - give people cash instead

Food will never be the solution to poverty. Sabine Goodwin, coordinator for the Independent Food Aid Network, explains why cash is key.

food banks

People who donated to food banks a year ago are now being referred to them. Image: Birmingham City Council

Independent food banks are facing the bleakest of winters.

Not only are they struggling to source supplies, but teams are exhausted and running on empty. Yet the relentless increase in need for their services continues unabated. Food banks have had to contemplate reducing the sizes of their parcels or even having to turn people away.

In a devastating blow to households across the country, the government cut £20 from universal credit. On top of rising energy and food prices, the cost of living is now unaffordable to millions of people. The government’s own data show 43% of UK households on universal credit were food insecure pre-pandemic. That figure can only have increased, and 5.8 million people are now dependent on the government’s flagship social security payment.

What’s more, 2.1 million people on legacy benefits like employment and support allowance didn’t ever receive the uplift and are facing yet another winter with inadequate financial support. We’re also witnessing a growing number of people needing to use food banks who have jobs but are unable to make ends meet. New registrations are now being made at food banks by people who donated to them a year ago.

The government attempted to replace £6bn in universal credit with the £500m Household Support Fund. The £421m destined for England’s local authorities comes armed with guidance that paves the way towards further food bank entrenchment. Gone is the hesitancy to mention the fact that food banks exist at all. Food banks are now acknowledged as potential routes for DWP funding.

What’s more, providing people with direct cash support is discouraged through terminology such as “risk of fraud”. The language used is in stark juxtaposition to government advice on overseas aid which states that: “Cash transfers empower the poorest and most vulnerable people to make their own decisions about what they need most, and enable them to spend it in their own communities.”

However, on the ground, local authority teams are increasingly open to a ‘cash first approach’ to food insecurity. At a local level, this means prioritising income-based options for people impacted by poverty ensuring any emergency food parcel is the last resort.

It’s becoming obvious that a charitable food aid response is unsustainable, undignified, and ineffective. News is filtering in of local authorities providing direct cash payments to people struggling to afford essentials rather than distributing vouchers or bolstering food banks.

As many food banks have received financial donations rather than food through the pandemic, some Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) members have started to distribute shopping vouchers instead of or alongside food parcels. Not the cash payment from a local authority that would be the optimum local response in the case of financial emergency but certainly a step in the right direction in terms of dignity and choice.

There’s a real openness to co-developing the cash first referral leaflets IFAN is co-producing with local groups to help people access any existing entitlements and maximise their income.

The Worrying About Money? leaflets are step-by-step guides based on learning from Scotland’s A Menu for Change project and help people, as well as support workers, to identify money problems, options that will help and local agencies best placed to offer direct support.

The aim of local partnerships in co-developing the resource, often led by local authority teams, is to reduce the need for charitable food aid and in the past year the project has proved popular. We’re currently working in over 50 areas with leaflets covering another 44 local authorities already in circulation.

The Scottish Government’s draft national plan to end the need for food banks also signals a ray of hope. These ground-breaking proposals, currently open to feedback, envision a society where no one needs a food bank and details a cash first strategy to get there.

Income-based, cash first solutions, both at central and local level, are what will end the need for food banks in the UK and – despite rapidly worsening poverty levels – there is reason to be optimistic that the cash first message is getting through.

You can access ‘Worrying About Money’ leaflets at www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/cash-first-leaflets

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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