Opinion

Time is running out – the next government needs a proper plan to end reliance on food banks

Latest Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data reveals that 7.1 million people reported food insecurity in 2022/23

Queueing for a foodbank

Newcastle is home to one of the busiest food banks in the country. Image: Carole Rowland / Newcastle West End Foodbank

Last week’s Labour Party reference to ending “mass dependence on emergency food parcels” is most welcome. It’s crystal clear that, despite the Herculean efforts of an army of volunteers, persistent rises in food bank use represent what their manifesto calls a “moral scar on our society”. But where is a food bank exit strategy in among Labour’s election promises including the much-needed ambition to remove dependence on emergency food parcels entirely? And is the severity of the UK’s food insecurity crisis being overlooked by a narrow focus on emergency food parcels?

Time is running out for millions of working and non-working people who have been plagued by poverty over the last decade and a half. Real change cannot come soon enough. Meanwhile, food bank teams are desperate to see their numbers drop. They have been hoping that their pleas for cash first (income-focused) policy solutions against a backdrop of spiralling demand and dwindling resources will have been heard.

Recognition that dependence on emergency food parcels ­– that is government reliance on charities to pick up the pieces ­– has eroded our society’s moral barometer is, of course, a step in the right direction. But critical steps are missing from this long-awaited manifesto including the admission that relying on food charities to respond to poverty, as well as food surplus redistribution, is neither effective nor sustainable. Just as food bank supplies run dry and volunteers burn out, food insecurity statistics demonstrate year after year that millions of food parcels can’t do more than temporarily alleviate hunger.

Latest Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data reveals that 7.1 million people reported food insecurity in 2022/23. For 3.7 million people reported that meant skipping meals or going hungry. But DWP data also tells us that just 14% of households reporting severe food insecurity accessed a food bank. Surely, the first objective of any political party should be to eliminate hunger. Ending the need for all food banks would be a start, but this could only tackle a fraction of the problem.

As more people struggle with physical and mental health issues as a result of financial hardship, the Labour’s manifesto promises to halve the regional life expectancy gap and envisions the NHS taking a preventative approach to ill health. But how can this possibly be achieved without ambitious actions to dramatically reduce poverty and food insecurity?

However welcome, the Labour Party has highlighted measures which can only put a dent in eye-watering food insecurity statistics. Commitments on zero-hours contracts, to increase the minimum wage in line with the cost of living (while removing age discrimination) and to reform work capability assessment and the Access to Work scheme are welcome. Actions aimed at reducing fuel poverty and the introduction of universal breakfast clubs are also positive.

The manifesto’s ground-breaking commitment to enact the Equality Act’s socio-economic duty could provide a framework to reduce poverty and food insecurity. But the election document is missing detailed actions to address already well-established and well-documented drivers of hardship. Spelling out urgent anti-poverty actions is critical as is the acknowledgement that to build a strong and fair economy requires people to be able to access a Living Income. Sufficiently boosting people’s incomes must be the very first step and finding the budget to do so is possible.

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Is a review of universal credit needed when the evidence is already overwhelming? Again, it’s positive that a co-developed strategy on child poverty is planned but numerous sets of statistics already tell us how to take 4.3 million children out of poverty. The body of evidence in favour of abolishing both the two-child limit (added to this week by the Institute of Fiscal Studies) and the punitive sanctions system is irrefutable. Food banks also consistently show us other key drivers of demand. These are the five-week wait for Universal Credit and resulting benefit deductions, No Recourse to Public Funds status, the benefit cap as well as low wages. And what’s abundantly clear is that Universal Credit is not enough to live off. Meanwhile, the groups of people most in need of support emerge time and time again including disabled people who are perennially overrepresented at food banks.

And in England food bank teams are deeply concerned about the imminent abandonment of the Household Support Fund (HSF). No realistic proposition on emergency food parcels can ignore the need for cash first local crisis support in every local authority. Such help is available in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland but in England more than half of local welfare assistance schemes have depended on the temporary HSF alongside a patchwork of local support too often playing its part to embed food bank reliance.

Overstretched volunteers are doing all they can to prop up a de facto safety net beneath a shredded social security system. They know only too well which actions should be prioritised by an incoming government. Policy changes must, of course, focus on low wages and insecure work but urgent improvements to our broken social security system are fundamental. Everyone should be able to realistically look forward to a future with adequate incomes and a Healthy Standard of Living. This is how to end not only mass dependence on emergency food parcels but, crucially, reduce staggering levels of poverty and food insecurity.

Sabine Goodwin is the director of the Independent Food Aid Network.

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