Ending the need for food banks

More people than ever in the UK are having to resort to food banks to feed themselves and their families. But a society without any food banks, at all, is entirely possible

                                                                                                      Image © Alexandra Smart

Throughout the cost of living crisis, the UK’s use of food banks has escalated dramatically, and in disturbing ways. One in five working people are now using food banks. Between April and September 2022 anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust gave out 1.3million food parcels, more than ever before – and half a million of those went to children.

The trust believes that perhaps 8% of the population is experiencing ‘food insecurity’, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food, with many not seeking help.

Like so many problems afflicting the country, it doesn’t have to be like this. There are tangible ways to address food insecurity at source – to prevent the need in the first place. And no-one is more aware of both the problems and the solutions than the staff and volunteers of the food banks themselves.

UNISON member Polly Jones (pictured below) is Scotland Head of the Trussell Trust. For three years now, the trust has been pursuing a strategy to end the need for food banks entirely.

“We asked ourselves, do we want to be a network that provides more and better food banks, or do we take the tougher choice and work towards ending the need for food banks altogether? It was a collaborative process with the folk who are running food banks directly, so it was very much their choice.

“It’s not just about how people’s needs are met – we want to make sure people aren’t hungry. You could shut food banks and open loads of soup kitchens, or give people vouchers to go to the supermarket instead. But that’s wholly inadequate, and isn’t going to fix the problem. No, we want to end anybody needing a food bank. Because there’s an inherent dignity in buying food for yourself.

“So many things need to be fixed to make that happen,” Polly admits. “And it’s hard at the moment, when everybody’s really struggling to keep up with rising costs. But it is possible. Thirty years ago we didn’t have food banks. Other countries don’t have them – France and Germany are good examples. And the UK’s not poor, we know that wealth is increasing, it’s just not increasing for most people.

“This is about political will. It’s clear that if you make different political choices, you will get different outcomes. Food banks are a sign that the system is broken. And it’s not acceptable. We can do better than this.”

                                                                                       Polly Jones. Image: © Chris Lacy

To speak of the solutions, Polly first has to look back, to the drastic rise in food bank use that quickly followed the Cameron/Osborne austerity agenda in 2010 , with their squeezes in wages and social security, and initiatives such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and benefit cap that restricted access to financial assistance. She also notes a direct correlation between the introduction of universal credit, particularly the delay in receiving money after application, with food bank use. 

Before joining Trussell, Polly managed a project called A Menu for Change, which aimed to improve policy and practical responses to food insecurity in Scotland. Extensive research led in 2019 to a number of recommendations, for the UK and Scottish governments, employers and others.

Trussell’s strategy draws on those findings, along with its own research; its aim is both to change policy, and to work with its community partners to improve advice on the ground.

The fundamental aim is to increase the amount of money in people’s pockets, whether it’s from work or social security. On the latter, Polly believes there needs to be a “much more robust and effective social security system” that will create a safety net between people and food insecurity.

Policy recommendations for central government, from Polly’s work at A Menu for Change, include:

  • Restore the value of key benefits, increasing all benefits in line with inflation;
  • Improve the incomes families receive from social security by removing the two-child limit and benefit cap;
  • Provide better support for people who develop ill health to remain in the labour market, and protect them from income crisis when they’re unable to do so;
  • Improve job security by banning exploitative zero-hours contracts and enforcing compliance with minimum employment standards among employers and recruitment agencies;
  • Increase the national living wage to the real living wage.

Among the demands on employers, is that they should be paying at least the real living wage to all staff.

Polly observes that real progress has to come, principally, from Westminster, because the UK Government is still mainly responsible for the social security system, even where there’s devolution. That said, the Scottish Government has already made some encouraging moves. It is developing its own, national plan to end the need for food banks. And it has recently increased the Scottish child payment, so that every child under 16 in a low-income family is entitled to £25 pounds a week, with no cap on the number of children per family.

In the meantime, Trussell is also exploring other areas, for example how it might help underfunded and over-stretched local services, such as social work and Citizens Advice, better work together – for example, in assisting people to maximise their benefits, making sure they’re getting all the money they’re entitled to, rather than send them immediately to a food bank.

The trust is using its ideas and resources to “show what is possible,” she says. And trade unions have a massive role in that campaign. “Lots of the people who food banks work with are in the sectors that UNISON organises – social workers, healthcare assistants, teaching assistants, staff who might refer people to food banks. They all see first-hand the terrible consequences of people not being able to afford food and where the system’s letting us down.

“I think one of the things that the trade union movement does so brilliantly is to set out the kind of future that we should be striving for – not just defending what we’ve got, but fighting for something better.”

Of course, if Trussell is successful, there would be one consequence close to home. “Yes, we’d be out of a job. Bring it on,” Polly laughs. And then, more seriously. “As a mission to do ourselves out of business, it’s a bold one, but it’s the right one. I’m proud that the organisation’s committed to doing that.”

Find out more about The Trussell Trust


One thought on “Ending the need for food banks

  1. Ross Sadler says:

    Volunteers in Berlin founded Germany’s first Tafel food bank in 1993. The organization says it supports some 2 million people, with regional branches receiving food and financial donations.16 Jul 2023

    The Carrefour Foundation supports Food Bank networks across the world, which enable those living in poverty to have a healthy and varied diet. Since 1994, Carrefour has been a partner of Food Banks, first in France then in other countries.

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