current affairs

What is the solution for British food banks?

I open this article with a healthy dose of guilt: Beyond my days in compulsory education and despite however many hours spent volunteering, I have not given the hungry anything close to the attenti

I open this article with a healthy dose of guilt: Beyond my days in compulsory education and despite however many hours spent volunteering, I have not given the hungry anything close to the attention it deserves. The desensitisation to poverty in other continents is a common epidemic, but even more worrisome is the lax attitude to poverty on our doorsteps.

Food wastage in homes is extraordinary. According to the Government Waste Policy Review of 2011, UK householders discard £12 billion of good food and beverages annually and supply chain waste is estimated at around £5 billion. 50 per cent of total food waste comes from UK households and 60 per cent of this is deemed avoidable. In my own home, the ratio of recycling to landfill waste is roughly 1:4 and as I feel like I just don’t have the time to do anything it is fair to call it avoidable.

People could easily be doing more and there are arguments to support the idea that nationally something is being done. The coalition government aims to increase the amount of food and packaging waste that is recycled, sent to anaerobic digestion or compost to 70 per cent by 2015. Unfortunately, no matter how much attention is given to food and packaging waste, it still does not address the rising rates of poverty in the United Kingdom.

The political rhetoric is designed to minimize our understanding of the impact of welfare changes. The Rt Hon Ed Davey MP denied any link between welfare policy, poverty, and the dire state of the food bank industry, but common sense tells anyone that taking money away from people will have a negative effect on their ability to buy things. On the 30th May, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty published the Walking the Breadline report, a concise assessment of reasons behind UK Poverty. The Trussell Trust (one of the UK’s leading food bank providers) has found that benefit changes are the most common reason for people needing emergency food.

Other reasons include the shamblesome disability benefit reassessments (an issue so scandalous it needs an article to itself), delays in payments, changes to JSA, and eligibility for crisis loans. 500,000 people are now estimated to be reliant on food banks or emergency food parcels. We are living in a culture which creates cracks for the vulnerable to fall through, and we then paste over these cracks with a combination of wilfull blindness and a self-righteous assurance that the others didn’t actually fall, they jumped.

The Guardian’s Patrick Butler draws parallels with the Canadian Food Bank industry following their economic struggles over the past few decades. In brief, food banks have proved to be an unsustainable treatment to the visible symptoms of a socio-economic decline as opposed to a short-term assistive measure to cope with any intermediate shortfall of change in social policy. Other problems with food banks include the assault to dignity, their strong reliance on goodwill and lack of a holistic approach to ending poverty. This economic downturn has left our country in a precarious position—we fail to view food banks in a way which acknowledges their potential for growth and tackle poverty through assistive measures.

These measures appear to assist everyone but the end users of the food banks. Asda has recently joined the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s by working closely with FARESHARE, a distributor of food to the needy. A highly commendable move that prevents stock going to landfill, and environmentally friendly but is this highly commendable move achieved through goodwill or is it related to Phase two of the Courtauld Commitment (2010-2012), a programme which set targets for supply chain waste prevention? And a quick look on campaigns websites will inform that big supermarkets still aren’t paying a living wage.

Instead of assisting the end users of a food bank, why not pay your staff enough to allow them to live and support themselves? Why is it so difficult to have a business model and company ethos that includes dignity?

Asking what a local council can do to address the food bank crisis is like asking what krill can do to prevent the upcoming visit from the nearest whale. Sure, if they’re incredibly organised and persuasive maybe they can convince their counterparts to avoid this particular danger but the whale is still around.

The best thing a local council can do to help the food banks is try to reduce the amount of their dependents. Councils can work with organisations like the Trussell Trust to better understand the causes of destitution and actively tackle them. If our most vulnerable people cannot afford their housing, then a local council should address housing costs. If people are struggling to travel to work due to the cost of public transport, then the council should address their transport policy or look into integrated services to reduce costs. We’ve learnt to justify wrongdoing or political inaction through the prefix, ‘in this current economic climate.’

Unfortunately, it has become true and in this current economic climate we run the risk of forgetting that actions have consequences and a policy has consequences. A policy is enacted to make change, and this still affects real people. The crisis affecting food banks is a symptom of the damage a programme of politically biased cuts are causing, and will continue to unless intervention occurs. We cannot afford a Canadian-style food bank industry. Local government using grassroots action will not solve national incompetence. To truly assist the food banks and their end users, those with a real understanding of social deprivation need to collate their resources and expertise and actively combat the destruction caused by ignorance in Whitehall.

I cannot close this article without guilt. Unlike those who indulge in blaming victims of circumstance for their situation, or the rhetoric demonising the disabled and working class, I still cannot shift the blame I feel.

Like many others, I may not have caused this crisis but through an absence of protest in government welfare cuts, I’m certainly contributing to it. 

What do you think should be done regarding food banks in the UK? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.