UK food banks offer lifeline to thousands

Interest rises in food bank schemes in the United Kingdom as struggling Britons hunger for new economic solutions.

Volunteer Derek Fishleigh sorts food at the Trussell Trust’s Salisbury warehouse. [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera]
Volunteer Derek Fishleigh sorts food at the Trussell Trust's Salisbury warehouse [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – Charities in the UK are warning that poverty-related hunger is growing amid a backdrop of tough economic austerity policies aimed at reviving the country’s ailing economy.

The soaring number of food banks providing emergency supplies to people in economic difficulty has prompted the British government to launch an inquiry into efforts to tackle what care professionals dub “hidden hunger”.

A consortium of charities now claim the government risks breaching its international human rights obligations on poverty and aim to submit a report to the United Nations, in a bid to hold officials to account.

Food banks have rapidly spread throughout the UK, with The Trussell Trust – which runs 310 sites across the country – providing emergency three-day food supplies to a projected 280,000 people during the 2012-13 financial year, compared with 60,000 in 2010. Trust officials believe, according to current trends, this number could grow to 500,000 people by 2015.

These figures exclude other forms of emergency food aid provided across the UK by churches, charities, schools, social workers and housing associations.

“Hidden hunger has existed in the UK for many years, but nothing was being done to stop people who were not homeless from going hungry – it was under the radar.

– Chris Mould, Trussel Trust

Hitting hard

In January, the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs invited research bids to examine household food security and explore who in the country was most at risk.

The Trussell Trust says many people are seeking help from food banks because of the rising cost of food and fuel for heating during Britain’s cold winters – alongside stagnant incomes, high levels of unemployment and overdue benefit payments.

Charities claim economic austerity policies and a stricter regime on benefit claims are increasing poverty in the UK, and that this will worsen as radical changes to the welfare system take effect.

The prosperous English cathedral town of Salisbury is the unlikely home of the Trussell Trust, which provides emergency food to 4,000 people in the area each year. The country’s largest food bank, in Coventry, supplies 10,000 people a year.

Trust staff stress that people can rapidly fall into need because of sudden changes in their circumstances – such as the loss of a job.

“Hidden hunger has existed in the UK for many years, but nothing was being done to stop people who were not homeless from going hungry – it was under the radar,” Chris Mould, Trussell Trust executive chairman, told Al Jazeera. “Because of the economic recession, the trust is now seeing a large number of people turning to food banks. One of the things we are trying to do is to help the public understand that anyone can hit a crisis, and it is not your fault – it is just that your circumstances can change, you lose your job or you’re working on a low income and an unexpected bill hits.”

The trust helps people referred to it by care and benefits agencies, operating strict systems to ensure benefactors do not become dependent on handouts, and lobbies for greater recognition of food poverty.

“Nobody would have expected the food bank network in the UK to have started in Salisbury, a prosperous town in southern England,” said Mould. “The reality is that there is hunger in every town in the UK but it is often hidden.”

Robert Lawrence, a 46-year-old from Salisbury, came to the food bank here because he could not find employment as a groundworker, and his out-of-work benefits have since been withdrawn. “If I didn’t receive food today, I would simply go hungry and I would have to go out begging,” he told Al Jazeera.

“If I didn’t receive food today, I would simply go hungry and I would have to go out begging.

– Robert Lawrence, food bank user

‘Working poor’ need help

Food banks form only part of Britain’s emergency food provision, and a large number of soup kitchens for the homeless and schemes for low-income families – such as school breakfast clubs – exist.

“There are definitely more people who are poor and hungry,” said Bob Baker, director of the Simon Community, which runs soup kitchens for London’s homeless.

“It is not just homeless people, it is lots of people who are living on benefits or people who are the new ‘working poor’ who are using food banks and soup kitchens of one sort or another.”

The issue of food poverty has risen rapidly up the UK’s political agenda, with Prime Minister David Cameron responding to a question in parliament on Wednesday February 27 by stating that the use of food banks grew tenfold under the previous Labour government.

Critics blame the climate fostered by government austerity policies – such as changes to the benefits regime – for the reported rise in poverty. They say a stark choice between “heating or eating”, often faced by low-income British families, will be exacerbated by welfare reforms that kick in from April. These include a benefit cap, limits to allowances, cuts to tax credits and a freeze in the value of payments. From October, a single universal credit will replace a range of existing stipends.

Working families are also under pressure. Researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies say median household income has been falling in real terms, and will be lower in 2015-16 than it was in 2002-03. An estimated 13 million people in the UK now live below the poverty line. According to the Resolution Foundation think-tank, the cost of basic purchases such as food and fuel has soared by more than 43 per cent since 2000.

“It is a disgrace that, in the seventh richest economy in the world, people don’t have enough money to feed their families.

– Kate Green, UK parliamentarian

‘Austerity’ on trial

A report [PDF] by a coalition of UK churches unveiled earier this month accused the government of deliberately misusing data to scapegoat the poorest families by blaming them for their own plight.

Even the august London School of Economics hosted a high-profile “Austerity on Trial” debate to consider if UK government policies breached international human rights law.

“It is a disgrace that, in the seventh richest economy in the world, people don’t have enough money to feed their families,” said Kate Green MP, the opposition Labour party’s spokeswoman on equality. “Food banks do a great job, but it is shocking that the Conservative-led government’s austerity measures are pushing the poorest families below the breadline while giving millionaires a handout.”

Reeling from the the loss of the UK’s Triple-A credit rating from Moody’s, the government insists that it will not retreat on its tough deficit-reduction measures, as it prepares the ground for a crucial budget to be announced later this month.

A consortium of 70 major charities led by the Just Fair campaign has now been formed to monitor the growth of food poverty, and aims to submit a report on poverty in the UK to the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Just Fair chairman Jamie Burton praised the work of food banks, but said he believes they should not be seen as a solution to food poverty.

“While we applaud those who take the time and money to support food banks we doubt that even they would contend that food banks should be considered an acceptable solution to food poverty beyond the very short term,” he said. “Sadly it seems the government disagrees, although that may, of course, change.”

Just Fair recently hosted a lecture in London by the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, on the growth of food insecurity in OECD countries.

The UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions, which oversees many of the changes being made to the country’s welfare system, has said that emergency financial support was available for people in economic difficulties through “crisis loans”.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the universal credit simplifying the complex myriad of benefits and making three million people better off. The UK’s benefits system provides support to millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so that no-one need struggle to meet their basic needs.”

Source: Al Jazeera