The foodbank dilemma (part 2 of 2)

by | 15 May 2015


Read Part 1 here.

A Last Resort

While there are endless subtle varieties in the way different foodbanks operate, there is one fundamental similarity in the reasons why people use them. Professor Dowler and her colleagues, in their report to DEFRA, found that people turned to food aid as “a strategy of last resort”, when they have exhausted all other possibilities, including cutting back on food and turning to family and friends. No one I met used a foodbank lightly. Louise had been skipping dinners for months before she went to Coventry Foodbank. She finally attended so she could feed her children during the school holiday. Others displayed the emotional and physical efforts of their visits in a variety of different ways.

In Edinburgh, I saw a young woman break down into floods of tears when the food was brought out. She was overwhelmed by the idea that she could feed her family properly that night. Another man, too shy to talk to me, told the volunteers he had walked miles across the city to get a referral and then a few miles more for his food that afternoon. He didn’t have enough money for the bus fare. He sat, exhausted, cradling a cup of tea, rocking backwards and forwards, before making the same trip home again. This time laden down with his bags of food.

Alan, a man who had suffered a delay in his benefits payments, said: “I had an emergency payment of £70 or so more than a month ago. But that has mostly gone. I am down to the last pound or so on my electricity card and I am really starting to worry about that. And so I have been going to bed really hungry for a week or so. It’s my second trip. I was really worried about coming the first time. I was ashamed, but everyone has made me feel so welcome, and told me not to worry. This time I feel more comfortable. I hope my benefit issues will get sorted out soon so I don’t have to come again. But I can’t be sure.”

Sometimes talkative, sometimes silent, sometimes overwhelmed, time and again I witnessed reactions that suggested that foodbanks are indeed a place of last resort, driven by demand from desperate people, not “consumers” making choices to try the Foodbank this week as a cheaper alternative to Tesco. That doesn’t mean some people won’t try to use foodbanks fraudulently. But the one example I saw only made me more certain that abuse of the system is very much a minority pursuit.

John was only the second client to come into Leamington foodbank on the day I visited. But he made the church café feel three times as full. As everyone else sat quietly, he paced up and down nervously, saying that the heat in the place was making him sweat. He came and sat down with me. Without prompting, he told me a rambling story of how his tent had been set on fire by kids last night. His food, clothes and money were gone. Enough cash for a bus ticket and he’d be back up north where he belonged.

Compared with every other foodbank client I had met he was excessively keen to justify his presence. His clothes looked too clean for a man living in a tent and whose worldly possessions had just been destroyed in a fire. Eventually his bags of food were produced. He haggled for a couple of extra cartons of juice and left with loud goodbyes, still complaining about the heat.

As he left, another client shouted “druggie” after him. Visibly upset, the other man explained to those who remained in the café that John would be selling the food for drugs later on. The tale John told me was probably the one he used to obtain his referral to the Foodbank in the first place. But John was the exception that proves the rule. His emotional reaction to being in the foodbank was so different to all the other people I met.

I’m sure others are “defrauding” the foodbank like John. If you have a powerful story of suffering which you can tell your doctor, or your debt advisor or your lawyer, the chances are you probably will get a referral, whether the story is true or not. But if you watch and talk to the people who actually come into foodbanks in large numbers, you realise that there is a more important story to tell. And report after report from people on the frontline has found that the vast majority of people who use foodbanks are doing so because they are struggling to cope.

Papering over the cracks?

At the heart of Louise’s story was a benefit sanction, a successful appeal and a long wait for everything to get sorted again. The Trussell Trust’s figures show that half of all referrals to foodbanks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes. It’s these kind of figures that led Chris Mould, the Trust’s Chairman, to protest very publicly about the “broken” benefits system. And it points to a dilemma at the very heart of the foodbank phenomenon.

I met Jimmy in Coventry Foodbank. Like Louise and many others I spoke to, a benefit sanction was the reason for his visit. But in his case, it was a government agency that had sent him. He told me, with an air of bewilderment, that he had signed for the wrong date on his job searches. And because this was his second ‘offence’, he had received a three month “sanction” (his benefits were stopped). He was waiting for a hardship payment that he thought wouldn’t come through for a couple of weeks. He had been given his Foodbank voucher by the Job Centre that had sanctioned him.

For Sue Bent, the Director of Coventry Law Centre, which serves the same areas of deprivation as Coventry’s Foodbank network, Jimmy’s is the kind of case that makes her worried about the role the Foodbank Network is playing.

Even before welfare reform started, people were struggling to heat their homes, or choosing between heating and eating. We saw many people living very sparse existences. And then welfare reform has meant that, for a lot of those people, their benefits are being cut in order to make work pay. And at the same time they are being asked to comply with a whole series of requirements in order to keep those benefits, which for some people is very difficult. This is sometimes because they’ve led a fairly chaotic lifestyle and are not used to dealing with those kind of constraints and requirements.

There may be some benefits to some of these people if they do get their lives together and get in the job market as a result of being encouraged to become less chaotic. But the sanctions that are applied when they do not comply, they are just adding another level of harshness and making things worse for most of them.

I don’t think that the punitive approach to getting people to a better place is going to work for most of our clients. And, I don’t think foodbanks trying to make it less bad is the solution either.

Foodbanks are papering over the cracks. Now you don’t want to see those cracks appearing. You don’t want to see people fall off a cliff. But the fact that the Job Centre refers people to food banks is quite shocking in itself. The State is supposed to make basic provision for someone not to be destitute. But we have created a system in which that is part of the outcome. You are left with nothing, and then the State gets round that by referring you to a foodbank where other people have given food that you can scrape by on.

You are left with nothing, and then the State gets round that by referring you to a foodbank where other people have given food that you can scrape by on.

These concerns resonate within the church communities that are providing emergency food aid. A report from Oxford Diocese collected evidence from across the Thames Valley region. It found that “many [who run emergency food aid initiatives] were worried and concerned that, whilst helping individuals, they may be fuelling a larger political problem by colluding with injustice and letting the government off the hook for leaving many of its people without the means to feed themselves and their families.”

Adrian Curtis, the Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network Director points out that only 2% of their referrals come from Jobcentres. But I am not sure this gets to the heart of the issue. Does it matter who makes the referral? Whether it is the Jobcentre directly, or someone’s doctor, debt advisor or lawyer? Isn’t the real issue that, whoever sends them, people who are left destitute by the State are being fed by charity from the foodbanks. Is this letting the government off the hook?

Adrian is keen to emphasise that the Trussell Trust is about a great deal more than “the re-distribution of food to people in need”. On benefit reform, they have played an important role in advocating on behalf of those people who are suffering as a result of the system. They will continue to do so, he says.

At this point my head starts to swim. How do we measure the impact of the Trussell Trust’s advocacy on welfare reform against the fact that it is reducing the pressure on government by feeding many of its “victims”?

There is a tendency to respond to this dilemma by invoking the immediate alleviation of suffering. Andy Bower in Leamington says: “I do feel like we are becoming another arm of the welfare state. And that does worry me a bit. But we are fulfilling a very basic Christian ministry of ‘when I was hungry, you gave me food.”

When is a crisis just a chronic struggle to survive?

For many foodbank clients, there is a crisis they can (perhaps) overcome. For others the situation looks more complex. When Louise gets the payout from her appeal, there is at least hope she will be able to make ends meet again. But what about her neighbours? They both work. But they are never sure how much work they will get, never sure if they will have enough money to pay the bills and feed the family. Is emergency food aid an appropriate response to their problems?

I met Simon in Coventry Foodbank. He’s a security guard with a wife and two children. He told me that when he got a job these days it was always on a zero hours contract, and so did not guarantee he could pay the bills. He had made 30-40 job applications over the last three weeks. But he didn’t envisage having a job any time soon that would provide a stable income, pay the bills and put food on the table. For Simon, as for Louise’s neighbours, the situation is not so much a one-off crisis, as a continual struggle to survive.

Use of foodbanks is fuelled by a complex set of factors. A report by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty, and the Trussell Trust itself has argued that it is driven by “a perfect storm of changes to the social security system, benefit sanctions, low and stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hours contracts and rising food and energy prices.” Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Liz Dowler, in their research, identify precarious housing circumstances, indebtedness and high-interest pay-day loans as additional factors.

many of the people who use foodbanks are not in crisis, but hanging on by their fingernails.

Professor Dowler tells me that “many of the people who use foodbanks are not in crisis, but hanging on by their fingernails. Hit by wave after wave of problems.” The Trussell Trust’s own figures support this idea. Almost 30% of people who use Trussell Trust Foodbanks give the primary reason for their visit as low income or debt. There are even more for whom these issues are in the background of their more immediate crisis situation. Is the Trussell Trust approach appropriate for dealing with these longer term struggles?

Sue Bent argues, “It’s an issue that you can have only three lots of food. While that is completely understandable as a model, it implies that you just need to tackle short term crises, and many of these people are not living in a crisis, they are living in a permanent place of hardship. And so again, there is a further de-humanisation, which I do not think is intended by the foodbanks. The implication is you have three packages and you should be alright. But for a lot of people, actually, the situation is that they won’t be alright after three packages because it is an ongoing, very harsh situation that they are trying to survive in. It is very difficult.”

When I put this issue to Adrian Curtis, he tells me that the UK foodbank network is also about attempting to deal with the underlying issues behind the crises:

The Trussell Trust network now work with more than 20,000 expert agencies who refer their clients to foodbanks. Our partnership with these organisations can really help.

We want to grow in our relationships with these organizations so that we can help people to deal with debt issues, to teach them to budget and to eat healthily, to help them to cope better.

This new approach is starting to catch on. I saw evidence of it in Leamington where they had a CAB debt advisor talking to the Foodbank’s clients. Coventry were working on a partnership with the CAB to provide advice on benefits and they also wanted to start doing cookery classes. A six-figure donation by money saving expert Martin Lewis is paying for a pilot financial advice scheme in six Trussell Trust foodbanks. The hope is that this will then become a blueprint for a model that can be rolled out nationally.

It’s clearly a good idea to give people the opportunity to gain life skills which will make them better financial planners or allow them to cook better meals. But is Michael Gove right that the primary blame for the foodbank phenomenon lies with peoples’ individual financial failings?

Professor Dowler argues that:

Research shows that the key causes of hunger and food poverty are structural – how much money people can spend on food, what it costs them, and whether or not they have equipment and fuel to store and cook it – rather than individual characteristics, such as whether people know what to buy and eat, can budget and cook well.

When I talk to people in the movement about these deeper root causes of food poverty, time and again, I hear people compare food aid to first aid. Chris Mould has said:

We get challenged a lot on being a sticking plaster. But we’re not trying to solve the root causes – other agencies have that responsibility. But I always ask people ‘Do you believe in first aid?’ Ambulances don’t work on accidents being prevented, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish ambulances. It just means we need other systems to look at root causes.

If hundreds of thousands of people who had never needed ambulances before suddenly started calling for them, then government would be examining the reasons behind this very seriously. But is anyone doing this in relation to the hundreds of thousands who are starting to use emergency food aid?

Looking beyond the hunger issue

In her book Sweet Charity, Janet Poppendieck tells the tale of the great US cheese giveaway in the winter of 1981. She recounts how three days before Christmas, President Ronald Reagan authorised the distribution of 30 million pounds of government surplus cheese by volunteers across the country. A media frenzy reported on long queues of people waiting hours in the freezing cold for a 5-pound brick of cheese. The queues were so long that some people left empty-handed. Others received cheese that was mouldy.

Popendieck talks of this incident as one of the catalysts for the explosion of emergency food aid in the US in the 1980s. Volunteers returned to their communities convinced of the need for emergency food aid. The great cheese giveaway and every subsequent hunger-related event “helped to reinforce the definition of the problem as hunger in the public mind.”

The underlying social and economic dynamics of 21st century Britain eerily echo what occurred in the US of the 1980s. According to Poppendieck:

The cutbacks and reductions in [US] public assistance benefits, along with declining wages at the bottom end of the pay scale, increasing shelter costs, and a growing reliance on layoffs and downsizing to increase profitability are reducing people to destitution and sending them to the food lines. These changes are causing the hunger to which kind-hearted people are responding with pantries and kitchens.

More than 30 years on, food insecurity now affects almost 1 in 6 people in the US. In 2013, the US Department of Agriculture reported that 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households. Feeding America, the US’s largest distributor of emergency food aidclaims to provide food assistance to an estimated 46.5 million people annually. People are as hungry as ever and, at the same time, emergency food aid provision is happening on a vast scale.

Poppendieck provides a compelling account of the power of the food issue to draw in assistance from across the community. “Fighting hunger is the non-partisan, inclusive, ecumenical goal that we can all agree upon,” she writes, and she goes on to examine the ways in which people and institutions from across US society were inspired to contribute to the efforts to feed the nation; from boy scouts groups to the United Steel Workers of America, from Coca Cola to CitiBank, organisations across the US rushed to support the cause.

And at the heart of those efforts were the volunteers who kept coming back because, as emergency food aid providers told her, “It feels so good … you see the results right away. Someone comes in the door hungry, and you give him something to eat. That’s what it is.”

I felt those same sensations. It was impossible not to be moved by Louise’s joy when her bags arrived. And time and again I heard from those who work in the network about the power of the food issue to move people, to make them feel compassion and solidarity with those in need. I heard from elderly members of church congregations who lived through the scarcity of the 1940s and 50s and wanted to help those facing hunger and poverty today. I heard from a younger generation, some of whom had been helped by the foodbank themselves, and later returned to volunteer.

Arthur Mathieson explains it like this: “Foodbanks register with people big style. If we were doing something else we would not have got the number of people involved from the local congregations. There is something so basic about food. It strikes a chord with so many people. And in the supermarkets, we get so many people coming up and saying well done.”

Beyond the individual volunteers and donors of food, I also began to get a sense of the extent to which organisations up and down the country are becoming involved in the provision of emergency food aid. Adrian Curtis told me about the 20,000 organisations who act as referral agents for foodbanks. Then there are the large supermarkets – Tesco’s, Morrison’s, Waitrose, Asda, Co-op, and Sainsbury’s – happy to partner up with foodbanks and allow their customers to donate the food they buy. I heard about companies like HSBC, Severn Trent Water and Peugeot who allow their workers to volunteer at foodbanks as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes, and others like National Power and Volvo who organise food collections among their staff. And I heard about the local Rotary Club, and the County and District Councils who provide funding towards foodbank programmes and activities.

These are just anecdotal examples, plucked from conversations with foodbank managers and volunteers. But I suspect that what is really happening here is what Poppendieck observed in the US – the institutionalisation of foodbanks, “the movement from shoestring to stability”, “the process by which an arrangement, a programme, an activity becomes a predictable part of society.”

The Trussell Trust are very aware of the US foodbank phenomenon and are keen to stress the differences. The issue is flagged up in one of nine “rumour responses” that they provide on their website. Unlike the US, the Trussell Trust say they discourage reliance on foodbanks by offering “a time-limited crisis intervention based on a referral system with food vouchers signed off by front-line care professionals.” Trussell Trust foodbanks also direct people to support that can help them with their longer-term problems.

But are these differences sufficient to avoid foodbanks becoming a permanent feature of the British landscape? Once every town in Britain has a foodbank, and there is institutionalised support for them from a myriad of agencies and corporations, will we really be able to find a way of making sure they are used less and less? Will we be able to look beyond the hunger issue and see foodbanks as the canary in the mine, a warning that there may be something very wrong with the economic and social model we are pursuing in Britain today?

When I think about these questions, my mind goes back time and again to my meeting with Louise. Does all the kind-hearted effort that goes into feeding Louise and her neighbours now, make it more likely or less likely that she will need help again in the future?


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.​3​@​warwick.​ac.​uk.


  1. Hi,please can anyone tell me where the picture at the top of the page was taken. Where is this foodbank?

  2. Balanced, thorough and enjoyable article on a subject which is seldom covered in such detail – thanks!


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