Opinion

Food banks are being forced to ration supplies. We can't sustain this level of poverty for much longer

The Trussell Trust is warning today that their network’s food banks alone will need to support more than 600,000 people during the “worst winter yet”. We need to tackle poverty at the source

trussell trust food banks

A food bank and warehouse in operation, Leeds. Volunteer working to sort and prepare food parcels for distribution, inside the warehouse. Image: Trussell Trust

The most recent figures collated from the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) show a stark picture of rising demand for support. Against a backdrop of exorbitant living costs, inadequate benefit payments, sanctions, benefit deductions, universal credit waiting times, the two-child limit, No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) status, low wages and insecure work, more and more people are being driven into poverty and hardship. And The Trussell Trust warned recently that their network’s food banks alone will need to support more than 600,000 people during the “worst winter yet”. 

Just before Keir Starmer made his Labour Party Conference speech earlier this month, data from Citizens Advice revealed that not only are universal credit payments inadequate but punitive sanctions, deductions and waiting times before first payments are all causing people to fall further into debt and poverty. Advice workers are witnesses of a “terrifying new normal of people living on empty”.

Meanwhile, reports of independent food banks running low on donations have become commonplace. The manager of a small independent food bank recently reported to IFAN that: “Surplus food is down. Our collections are under 50% of what they were. It just doesn’t work.” Independent food bank teams are having to ration their supplies and are putting strategies in place to limit the scale of support they can provide. Paul O’Brien of social justice charity Micah Liverpool put it this way: “Food banks cannot sustain this level of poverty for much longer.”

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

But an alarming new trend has also emerged. So overwhelmed by what’s being asked of them, food bank teams are having to access mental health support services to find a way to cope with the impact of what’s being asked of them. Jen Coleman of the Black Country Food Bank has explained: “Volunteers are struggling because of the number of people accessing our services, the weight of responsibility is huge.”

That burden is only made heavier by the complexity of the situations people struggling to afford food are facing. Su Parrish, based at The Easter Team in Crawley, knows this only too well that: “Everyone is feeling the strain of struggling to support clients with increasingly complex needs. Most of our volunteers signed up to give out food parcels and be a friendly face spreading some love. They didn’t anticipate the level of stress that our clients now exhibit because of the situations they find themselves in.”

Millions upon millions of food parcels have been distributed in the UK over the last 13 years yet poverty and food insecurity continue to increase. What’s more, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), most people who are struggling to afford food, do not access a food bank at all. Those millions of parcels are the veritable tip of the iceberg.

The Trussell Trust has just launched an appeal for donations to enable their food banks to buy food in lieu of depleted donations yet it’s clearer than ever that food parcels can do no more than alleviate hunger and the food bank response is neither effective nor sustainable.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

And this weekend, King Charles announced that he will celebrate his 75th birthday launching a new initiative to tackle food waste and food poverty that will channel surplus food to food banks. Food poverty or food insecurity cannot possibly be reduced through the redistribution of food waste given a food parcel can only ever fill a gap in the here and now.

What’s more, redistributing food surplus doesn’t tackle the food waste problem either – this must be solved by producing less. However well-intentioned, the conflation of the food poverty and food waste problems further entrenches a two-tier food system in the UK meaning people impoverished by a broken system are having to make do with what’s leftover.

The only solution is obvious and one that would reduce poverty as well as its impact on people and frontline workers and volunteers doing their utmost to provide support. As speakers at an IFAN and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) Labour Party Conference fringe event made clear earlier last week, our poverty ‘permacrisis’ requires cash-first or income-focused solutions to poverty to be prioritised at both national and local level.

Ultimately taking a cash-first approach means everyone is able to access a ‘living income’ whether through wages or social security payments. When it comes to local crisis support, people facing financial hardship should be able to access cash payments via their local authority through permanent central government funding. And inextricably entwined with a cash-first agenda is easily accessible, well-funded advice and support ensuring people have the opportunity to maximise income and access any entitlements.

The provision of emergency food parcels epitomises a ‘sticking-plaster’ response to poverty. Yet key actions to tackle demonstrable drivers of food bank use are missing from the government’s as well as the Labour Party’s plans. Reducing poverty must be the priority for all political parties. Not only to shorten the queues for food banks and lessen the appalling pressure on food bank volunteers but in order to “cut health inequalities” and “break down barriers to opportunity”. Of course, commitments on a real ‘Living Wage’ are most welcome but we need to see the government and the Labour Party put their weight behind, at the very least, an Essentials Guarantee and the removal of the two-child limit which would go some way to improve the UK’s unconscionable child poverty statistics. 

And a national anti-poverty strategy replete with measurable actions to tackle the drivers of poverty and food insecurity with a cash-first approach is desperately needed. We need to see a Living Income and a Healthy Standard of Living for All. Yes, something must urgently be done to reduce the number of working people needing to access food banks to get by but, of course, our society is not simply made up of people who are employed. Our social security system must be the bedrock for everyone whatever their circumstances. Tackling the root causes of poverty, and ending the need for charitable food aid, must be any government’s priority above all else. 

Sabine Goodwin is the director of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN).

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand
Cath Hill

So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand

This government failed to end rough sleeping – so now they're trying to police it out of existence
The Criminal Justice Bill criminalises rough sleeping
Tom Kerridge

This government failed to end rough sleeping – so now they're trying to police it out of existence

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all
people experiencing homelessness also face stigma
Matthew Torbitt

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all

BBC Breakfast's Naga Munchetty: This is how we stamp out teenage misogyny and sexism
Naga Munchetty

BBC Breakfast's Naga Munchetty: This is how we stamp out teenage misogyny and sexism

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know