When I think1 about foodbanks now, more than anything else, I think about Louise.2 Louise was the first person I ever met who talked to me about her experiences of using a foodbank. Six months later, it is still my meeting with Louise I return to time and again. As if making sense of that meeting can somehow help me unravel all the issues that I have wrestled with in the months that have followed, as I have visited foodbanks, talked to the people who run and use them, interviewed food experts, and read books, reports and articles, trying to understand the foodbank phenomenon.
Hugh McNeil, the project manager of Coventry’s foodbank network is with me. With us are a journalist and photographer from the Independent newspaper. The café is already full of volunteers, bustling around. The atmosphere is upbeat, energised. We finish eating, and Hugh suggests we take a brief tour before the Centre opens its doors.
We leave the café and go down a narrow corridor, and arrive at a large storeroom. It’s full of middle-aged women talking animatedly and sorting through provisions stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. Tins of soup, packets of pasta, cartons of juice. Too many different foodstuffs for me to make sense of it all. My eyes are drawn instead to the numbers scrawled in black highlighter pen everywhere.
“What are the numbers for?” I ask Hugh.
“Those are the use-by dates.” He replies. “So we know when we have to use the food. You don’t want to give out food that is good until 2017, and then find that you have to throw away other tins and packets that have already gone off.”
“Most of the food comes from collections from Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s,” Hugh tells me. “The supermarkets allow us to give their customers a shopping list and we’re then relying on the generosity of the people of Coventry to go in and buy a couple of extra items and give them to us. Just the annual collection we do at Tesco for three days every July should bring us in around ten tonnes of food from across the city.”
“People do still donate at churches and other places. We literally have ten tonnes of beans. We have a ‘bean room’ at our central storehouse. People for some reason associate a foodbank with beans. But actually what we need is coffee, sugar, UHT milk, tinned fruit, tinned fish. A whole range of things. So we try and get the shopping list to people and ask them to buy from it. But whatever you do, you still get lots of beans.”
We leave the storeroom and go through a large hall at the back of the café, and out into a small back yard. A lorry is parked in the middle of the yard and younger men and women are sweating as they heave down crates. They are jobseekers, getting some work experience as foodbank volunteers. The crates are full of fresh fruit and vegetables. Hugh says they’ve been donated by Costco.
When we get back to the café, there are people sitting at almost every table. I quickly scan the room: these are the people who have come to use the foodbank. Some are already sipping tea and coffee while they wait. At one table a volunteer is asking a couple if they have children. Then “Are you a vegetarian?” She ticks boxes on a form, and soon scuttles off to prepare three days’ worth of provisions, tailored to the couple’s needs.
There is a table set out by the entrance of the café, full of forms and papers. Tony, the volunteer co-ordinator, is greeting two new arrivals. A young clean-shaven man leads an older, grey-haired, battered-by-life-version-of-himself to where Tony stands. Tony greets them kindly and asks the younger man who referred them to the foodbank.
There’s a moment of startled silence. Then the younger man says gruffly, “It’s not for me, it’s for my dad”, and looks down at the floor. The colour flushing his face makes clear his embarrassment.
The older man appears confused until his son tells him to hand over the piece of paper he’s holding in his hand. It transpires he’s been sent to the Foodbank by a debt councillor at Whitefriars, Coventry’s largest provider of social housing. Tony takes a note of some numbers. All seems in order. He tells them to take a seat and someone will be over to see them shortly.
Hugh explains to me how the system works. “People are referred by specialist agencies from across the city,” he says. “We work with over 250 agencies including churches, schools, housing agencies, GP’s surgeries and hospitals. Each person is entitled to 3 vouchers over a six month period. And each voucher entitles them to 3 days of food. We are there to help people with short-term crises. We aren’t the long term solution to people’s problems.”
Hugh asks me if I want to meet some of the clients. I hesitate. More than anything else, this is what I have come for: to talk to people who use the foodbank, to understand why they have come and how they feel now that they are here. But suddenly I feel awkward and unsure, as if I’m pushing myself into the midst of a very private and sensitive process. At the same time, I see the journalist and photographer buzzing round the room talking to people and asking for pictures. I steel myself and agree to Hugh’s offer.
He approaches a small, slight young woman, who is sitting crumpled and small on a chair in the corner. They talk. Even at a distance, I can tell that his infectious enthusiasm is beginning to win her over. She slowly unfurls, brightening and then, a nod. Hugh beckons me over, introduces me; Louise is happy to have a chat.
School holidays are the hardest time because you have to feed your children three times a day. That’s why I am coming here now, she begins.
The foodbank is wonderful. Normally I shop only from the value range and often I go round a couple of different supermarkets for the cheapest bargains so I can make my money stretch. And it’s all tinned and frozen stuff – beans, pasta, that kind of thing. No fresh fruit or vegetables.
Normally I eat porridge in the morning to fill myself up and then often I don’t eat at all myself in the evenings. But today is the start of the kids’ holidays and so they don’t get the school meals, they have to eat all their food at home and I just can’t manage, and so the foodbank is a lifeline.
Louise is a single mother with two young children. She has always found it a struggle to make ends meet, she says, and then she lost her Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance and was deemed fit for work. There is a garbled tale of an interview that went horribly wrong. She looks down at her feet.
She brightens again as she tells me about winning her appeal against the decision. But the appeal took six months and she’s still waiting for the payout. In the meantime, she has struggled to feed and clothe her two children and pay all the bills. The school holidays and the extra financial pressure they bring were the final straw. That’s what brought her here today.
At one point the journalist from the Independent comes over to see if I’m finished. She sits for a while, notepad poised. But she realises that we have wandered off foodbanks and onto our very different experiences of parenthood, and she drifts off again. Louise grows in confidence as she tells her story. I wonder if, as a single mother, Louise ever talks about her problems to anyone other than Jobcentre staff, lawyers and healthcare professionals.
The Foodbank is great because there are a couple of nice puddings and a pizza in there, some cornflakes and chocolate biscuits. Stuff I would never normally be able to buy. The only other way to get something nice like that is to talk to the local shoplifter who can get you a nice piece of meat at a price you can afford. People do use him, but you can’t really blame them. Like my neighbours. They’ve been to the foodbank too. They both work. But they never know how much work they’re going to get, and sometimes it’s just not enough. It’s horrible not being sure you can put food on the table for your family.
And then a smiling foodbank volunteer comes over, weighed down with shopping bags. Louise’s eyes light up as the woman puts the bags down in front of her. They sag outwards to display their contents. I see Louise catch sight of the bright shiny wrapping paper of two Easter Eggs perched on a solid base of soup, beans and pasta. She blinks back the tears. For a moment I think she will break down and fall into the volunteer’s arms. But she settles for a series of heartfelt ‘thank yous’. The volunteer smiles again, a real joyful bottom-of-the-heart-smile this time.
Louise thanks me for the chat. We awkwardly wish each other well for the future. And she is off, out of the bright glass doors of the café and up the street. I am left thinking about Louise’s story, the story of her neighbours, and the feeling of joy we all felt when her food arrived.
There have always been people in Britain who are hungry. And for centuries there have been attempts to feed them. The soup kitchens of the late 18th Century, which sprung up as a response to the ruptures caused by the industrial revolution, were replaced by the workhouses of the 19th century. Today charitable food aid comes in many shapes and sizes. From school breakfast clubs to evening soup runs, from lunches at drop in centres for rough sleepers to “meals on wheels” for the elderly. Food aid is provided in a myriad of different forms to an equally wide range of different groups across modern Britain.
Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that more than 20 million meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013-14 by the three main food aid providers. But that does not take into account any of the foodbanks, soup kitchens, breakfast clubs and other forms of food aid that are run locally. Professor Liz Dowler is one of the authors of a report that recently reviewed emergency food aid provision in the UK for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The report concludes that “it is impossible at present to give an accurate estimate of the numbers of people fed by charitable food aid providers in the UK…”
The truth is we simply have no idea of the extent of who is providing emergency food aid and who is receiving it. Professor Dowler explains to me that this situation is part of a wider problem inherent in trying to understand issues of food insecurity.
Not having enough food is a very private issue. It is a private sector issue. Food production, distribution and even the regulation of food does not involve the government a great deal. It is an issue of private shame. People eat mostly within the home, and so what people eat, and the ways in which it is inadequate, people keep to themselves. And it is an issue of privatesuffering. If you are not getting enough food, or the right kind of food, you absorb the misery yourself. The cost is embodied by you. It is your body that becomes unhealthy.
Food poverty is not then a natural headline-grabber. But recently the rise of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Network has brought the issue of hunger and its causes into the public consciousness.
The Trussell Trust was launched in 1997 by Paddy and Carol Henderson to improve conditions for homeless children in Bulgaria. While fundraising back home in Salisbury in 2000, Paddy received a call from a local mother whose children were going to bed hungry that night. He realised she wasn’t alone and so he started Salisbury foodbank in his garden shed and garage. The foodbank provided three days of emergency food to local people in crisis.
But it was clear to Paddy and Carol that the problems affecting some of Salisbury’s residents were not unique to that city. In 2004, the Trust created a not-for-profit social franchise so that foodbanks could be set up elsewhere. The model is a relatively simple one. The Trust manages the network. Local groups (mostly coalitions of churches) obtain franchises to run foodbanks in their town by making an initial donation and then an annual contribution to the Trust. The Trussell Trust provides support and training in setting up and running the foodbank. And they audit each foodbank annually to make sure they are meeting the network’s standards.
A month before the election of the coalition government in 2010, there were 54 Trussell Trust foodbanks in Britain. Four years on, there are now around 420 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s an average of more than 90 foodbanks opening in new towns across the country each year.
But Adrian Curtis, the Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network Director, tells me that the “420 foodbanks” figure is increasingly misleading, and fails to capture the true rate of growth in the network:
We tend to talk more now about ‘foodbank centres’ when measuring the size of the network. There are around 420 foodbanks in Britain. But many of those foodbanks are now operating at a number of different centres where people can come and receive food. We estimate that there are around 1,400 foodbank centres now.
There are still one or two new foodbanks opening in new towns each week. But growth in new foodbanks has slowed. The real growth is in the number of foodbank centres which are being opened by each existing foodbank. There are as many new centres opening as ever before.
So for instance, Coventry Foodbank counts as a single ‘foodbank’, but now has sixteen centres which give out food at various locations around the city seven days a week. Overall, the Trussell Trust has created a network that in ten years has grown from scratch to having more ”branches” than Lloyds Bank. And these branches are not empty. Most important of all is the number of people the network is feeding. The Trussell Trust estimate that they fed 900,000 people last year (a 163% rise on the previous year). They haven’t been doing it quietly.
Initially the [then] coalition government appeared relaxed, even positive, about the growth of the foodbank network. David Cameron was said to be particularly enthusiastic. After all, this was the Big Society in action. Communities coming together to provide for each other, without the need for government to get involved at all. Ian Duncan Smith was also said to be “very keen”, and wanted staff in jobcentres to be able to direct claimants to foodbanks “because of the difference it could make to their lives.”
But then the Trussell Trust started to get “political”. They went public with figures that showed more than half of their clients were receiving food because of benefit delays, sanctions, and financial difficulties relating to the bedroom tax and abolition of council tax relief.
“The reality is that there is a clear link between benefit delays or changes and people turning to food banks, and that the situation has got worse in the last three months”, said the Trussell Trust executive chairman, Chris Mould. “We are calling on the government to listen to what’s happening on the ground, to realise that when the welfare system breaks down, it means families go hungry.”
But the government did not want to listen. It wanted to fight back. Chris Mould reported that the government had privately threatened the Trussell Trust with closure. Publicly, government officials sought to shift the blame elsewhere for the growth in the network.
Initially, the Trussell Trust themselves were blamed. Ian Duncan Smith denied the links between welfare reform and use of foodbanks and suggested that the Trussell Trust were merely seeking publicity as part of their business model to promote their own growth. Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, suggested this was a supply rather than a demand led issue; if foodbanks are set up, people will use them. A senior DWP official argued, in a similar vein, that the network was primarily serving its own needs, not those of the community: “For the Trussell Trust, foodbanks started as an evangelical device to get religious groups in touch with their local communities.”
More recently, blame has also been apportioned to the individuals who use foodbanks.Michael Gove [now Justice Minister tasked with repealing the Human Rights Act] suggested that people who rely on foodbanks do so because they are unable to properly manage their finances. A Mail on Sunday investigation argued that many of those using foodbanks were doing so fraudulently. In an article headlined: “No ID, no checks… and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims”, an undercover Daily Mail reporter pretended he was unemployed and struggling for food and was given food parcels without having to substantiate his claims. Other undercover reporters found evidence of “repeat users” and flouting of rules about how many food parcels individuals could receive.
Across the political divide in the Labour Party, the rise in the use of foodbanks is seen very differently. Foodbanks have been a key weapon for Ed Milliband in his cost-of-living offensive against the government. According to Labour, welfare reform combined with low wages and spiralling costs of basic goods and services are driving people to foodbanks.
The contentiousness of the issue, and the lack of progress in dealing with it, has led Frank Field MP to set up a Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty to “investigate the root causes behind hunger, food poverty and the huge increase in demand for food banks across Britain”. The Inquiry includes both Labour and Conservative MPs. But the widely publicised disagreement over what is causing the surge in the use of foodbanks means there is scepticism about whether they will be able to reach a consensus on root causes or agree on what should be done in the future.
National Organisation, Local Imagination
The Trussell Trust may operate on a franchise model, but this is not McDonalds. Foodbanks will never make profits. And so when a local church group make the decision to set up a foodbank, they make use of whatever resources they can get their hands on. Primarily that means the time of volunteers, the food and other goods that are donated, and the spaces that the local community can provide. Each foodbank is unique. Shaped to the contours of the available spaces, the numbers of clients they serve, and the ingenuity of the people who run them.
In my local area, there are three foodbanks. Coventry is by far the largest. Its sixteen foodbank centres are served by a central distribution centre. The food is collected and stored by a team of paid workers and volunteers in an old Methodist church hall. On the day I visit, they are talking about concreting over the narrow cracked path up to the church’s main entrance. They need easier access for the tonnes of food that come in and out of the church each month.
Inside, workers stack the food as it arrives, and then sort it into date order in the main hall of the old church (apart from the beans of course, which have their own room). Food is stacked in boxes, and placed on vast racks that cover the whole room. The crosses on the wall above the mountains of tins and packets are a powerful symbol of the religious origins of the foodbank movement, of dwindling congregations and adaptive imagination. In a back room, they are diversifying into clothes, and although it is early days, they already have enough stock for a small charity shop.
In Kenilworth, six miles south of Coventry, there is another foodbank. In size and scope, it could not be more different. The town is small with a population of just over 20,000. It’s relatively affluent. Kenilworth has a single foodbank centre housed in the Town Council Buildings, at the site of the old police station. All the food is stored and distributed there. Twice a week it opens its doors to local residents who receive their supplies in a small council office upstairs. The food is kept in the basement, packed into the old police station cells that were used to hold overnight prisoners.
It’s the basic basket here mostly. We don’t do fresh food,” Les Thornton, the warehouse manager tells me. “We do sometimes get cakes, puddings that kind of thing. We get rid of them quickly before they go off.
Our foodbank opened in August 2012. We saw the need at our churches and through other agencies like the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. When we opened, we were getting half a dozen or so clients a week. Gradually it increased. We were serving Warwick and Leamington as well at that stage. But it’s quieter again now that the Warwick and Leamington foodbank has opened.
Warwick and Leamington are two bigger towns which are effectively a single conurbation, five miles south of Kenilworth. Around 80,000 people live there. There are bigger pockets of deprivation than in Kenilworth. The foodbank opened last year and already has five distribution centres in churches, community and childrens’ centres across the town. The food is stored centrally.
Andy Bower, a former chef who owned two Italian restaurants before they went bust during the recession, manages the Leamington Foodbank network. The racking he used in his restaurants has now taken up residence in the garage where the food is stored. He tells me, “Up until the end of last year, we were distributing 250 to 300 kilos per week out to the five centres. We are now distributing 450 to 500 kilos. I can’t see us getting smaller any time soon.”
When I visit, Andy is excited at having just secured funding for an advisor from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to come in and talk to clients. The advisor hands the clients a pamphlet entitled ‘Making the Most of Your Money?’ and offers them an opportunity to talk through their financial issues.
Franchises like this exist up and down the country. They operate the same basic model, involving three days of emergency food accompanied by cups of tea or coffee, the opportunity to chat to volunteers, and the signposting of other services and funds that the clients might find useful. But there is never-ending variety in terms of the physical space that they occupy, the add-on goods they can provide beyond the basic food package, and the services they are starting to develop.
On a trip to Scotland, I visit a foodbank in Edinburgh. I meet up with Arthur Mathieson, the operations manager of the Edinburgh North East Network, based in Leith (really a separate town from Edinburgh, Arthur tells me). Again I find a tale of local church communities identifying a need and using their communal resources to set up a local network with its own individual local hallmarks.
My church have been doing a Sunday breakfast ‘soup kitchen’ for almost 25 years,” Arthur says. “But with tougher times we saw that there were different types of people who needed our help, and more people who were struggling to get by. And so we set up the foodbank here.
Arthur says that his foodbank is relying more on food from the local congregations and less on food collected at local supermarkets than other foodbanks. There is more of a struggle to ensure they have the full Trussell Trust three-day food parcel. But, through a network of volunteers, five days a week, churches and community centres open their doors in and around Leith to provide food.
The foodbank centre we visited was in Pilrig’s St Paul’s Church. Church pews and an altar are an imposing backdrop to the make-shift café set up in the church’s entrance. The volunteers are a little older, and the extras provided are more focused on basic toiletries like toothbrushes, soap and nappies for the many young families who seek assistance.
Arthur says, “Staff doctors from the local medical centre donate a box of toiletries to us every so often.” Different local contacts, different basic needs that the Foodbank are able to satisfy.
In Part 2 James considers how a perfect storm of austerity has fuelled the use of foodbanks indicating not so much a sudden ‘crisis’, but rather the entrenchment of a chronic struggle to survive.
Republished from Lacuna magazine with permission of the author.
James Harrison is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Co-Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice and is particularly interested in the wider social justice impacts of economic actors, instruments and decisions (e.g. public spending cuts, multinational corporations, international trade agreements). He can be contacted at J.Harrison.firstname.lastname@example.org.