Reposted from Guardian Society
The all-party parliamentary group on food poverty and hunger gathered some astonishing and often harrowing evidence from food bank clients, volunteers, public servants and the charities during its eight-month inquiry during April and November this year.
It found hunger was affecting people all over the country: in urban and rural areas, in wealthy towns and deprived neighbourhoods, with often devastating effects on lives and families.
Here’s a flavour of the evidence, which cumulatively describes the reasons for both the rapid escalation of food banks, the scale of food poverty, and its human impact.
The inquiry found food banks have become an emergency response to a dramatic recent rise in food poverty, even in traditionally poor areas, Nigel Hughes, the chief Executive ofYMCA Wirral told the inquiry:
This area [Wirral] has had a number of problems with deprivation for a long time. But it has never, ever reached the point as it has recently where deprivation necessitates the urgent forming of a food bank.
But it is not just poorer areas which has seen people going hungry. The social responsibility adviser to the Diocese of Oxford, Alison Webster, said:
This is the town [in wealthy Berkshire] where one of the three food bank directors discovered a woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy and her partner living in a child’s toy tent in winter, with nothing to eat, down a lane less than 200 yards from one of the churches.
Some charities were taken aback by their unexpected new role as a sticking plaster for gaps in the welfare state. Mark Goodway, director of The Matthew Tree Project in Bristol, told the inquiry:
What we were set up to do in the first place wasn’t to support people with no money at all because their benefits had been withdrawn. That wasn’t what we were all about. We’ve been sucked in by accident. What we were about was helping people with deep-seated, long-term problems. We’d like to give the limited resource we’ve got to those people. But we’re regularly supporting people with benefit delays for 6, 8 or 12 weeks, otherwise they’d have nothing.
Leeds Food Aid Network said it had historically associated food poverty with people who were homeless. But this had changed in recent years:
More recently, with the rise in living costs, including food prices, stagnant wages, a rise in insecure zero hour contracts and major changes to the welfare system many more people, who are not necessarily in immediate danger of becoming homeless, have been experiencing rising levels of food poverty. This has stirred a significant increase in food banks provision which has emerged substantially in Leeds since the beginning of 2013.
Nuneaton food bank said it had even witnessed NHS workers forced to use the food bank because of low pay:
Nuneaton does not have a lot of highly paid employment. Some of the employees at the hospital have had to supplement (their income) with food bank [parcels] on longer months.
Police officers suggested to the inquiry one consequence of the rise in hunger has been an increase in so-called “survival crime”. Nicky Gjorven, a duty sergeant with Northumbria Police, said:
Shoplifting has been a big issue in the last three years, particularly from 40-60 year olds. It’s now your essentials rather than your alcohol and your sweets that were stolen in the past. It used to be obvious why people were stealing – they were an alcoholic or a drug addict. But now people are taking the opportunity to steal staple goods.
Food poverty often drove people to desperate lengths. The inquiry heard an account of:
One man in Birmingham who had made a mistake on his application for Jobseeker’s Allowance. He received no money for twelve weeks. During the twelve weeks he was seen rummaging in the bins behind a chip shop. When the owner of the chip shop got fed up with him rummaging through the bins and phoned the police, the man was arrested for trespassing.
According to food bank client Alan McNickle of Salisbury:
I have slept rough for a period of time and even served a jail sentence for thieving things, just to survive. I’ve robbed out of skips behind Iceland and slept under the river bridge by Tesco’s. That’s how bad it got.
The reported health consequences of going without food were often devastating. A primary school governor in Birkenhead said:
[One lady] told me last week that she had been fine until she lost her job, with no support she soon found she did not have enough money to meet her commitments. Good food was sacrificed and a few weeks later she was admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition. She had eaten impoverished food for weeks and then not eaten for five days as she had no money to buy food.
In one case the experience of extreme levels of poverty and hunger was fatal. Vince Hessey, of YMCA Wirral, told the inquiry:
One of our clients was sanctioned. He had no money for seventeen weeks. He was scavenging in a bin, the lorry came, picked him up and he was crushed to death.
Some witnesses said the standard food parcels were insufficient to help people who were so poor they could not afford to cook the food. According to the Alabare Centre inSalisbury:
Our staff … had experienced service users being forced to hand back parts of their food parcels because they have been unable to afford the energy costs of heating the food.
A Birkenhead primary school governor told the inquiry:
For the first time I have ever known we have had children crying at the end of the day as they did not want to go home to a cold dark home with no food. We had no option but to send them home. I have been in schools for 25 years and have never lost sleep before over the plight of our children before, which I do now.
Many witnesses blamed the slow, cumbersome and punitive welfare system for pushing vulnerable people into food poverty. Rosie Rushton, a volunteer at Northampton food banktold the inquiry of:
An ex-Army guy who had gone 11 weeks [without payment] and was living on the streets cooking on a makeshift brick-and-wood fire.
Benefit applications often got “lost in the system”, as Winston Waller, of the Whitstable Society of St Vincent de Paul told the inquiry:
[A woman] had a baby and applied for Child Benefit. After waiting 4 weeks, the benefit office contacted her to say they had lost the baby’s birth certificate and so she had to buy another, which cost her £12. The benefits office then wrote to say they had found the original certificate, but had lost her form. She had to then apply again and was told it would introduce a further 8 week delay.
Tighter sanctions, where claimants had benefits stopped for often absurdly minor or apparent unfair transgressions also drove food bank use. The inquiry heard many examples, including this, from Ely food bank, of a mother who had called the jobcentre to say she had to miss an appointment there because her child was ill. She was sanctioned anyway:
Job Centre staff apparently told the claimant that it was more important to report on time at the Job Centre than take their baby to an emergency doctor’s appointment
The Faculty for Public Health at the Royal College of Physicians told the inquiry that recorded food bank demand was likely to be an underestimate of the true scale of hunger:
Food bank numbers are an inadequate indicator of need, because many households only ask for emergency food help as a last resort … We view the rise of food poverty as an indication of the reversal of what was a long process of improvement in food availability and affordability since World War Two.
Some witnesses noted that demand was increasing beyond the capacity of voluntary food banks to help. The Catholic Church said in its submission that:
Food banks were initially established to meet emergency need. This need has now developed into a chronic problem, which cannot be solved in the short-term with just three food parcels. There is a growing recognition that limited parcels are not enough
The capacity of the voluntary food bank model – and the ability of individual food donors to keep them stocked – in the face of such demand was uncertain, according to some witnesses. According to Malcolm Peirce, director of the Readifood charity:
In our opinion the food model of donations is probably not sustainable long-term. Supermarket customers will not give indefinitely without good cause.
But even some more substantial corporate donations were erratic, and often beyond the capacity of food banks to handle, as this astonishing piece of evidence from Don Gardnerof Camborne, Poole and Redruth food bank illustrates
I had 9,864 Cornish pasties [offered to me] because the lorry was seventeen minutes late to Morrisons. That shouldn’t happen. I was offered 30,000 spring greens the other day because they were going to be ploughed back into the field. I couldn’t have them because I didn’t have anywhere to put them. I was offered 10 tonnes of tomatoes from Kent because they were too big for Tesco.
The inquiry found that food banks worked well as a short-term “buffer zone” that helps people deal with temporary crises. But it says that most evidence submitted accepted that charity food aid alone was not a long-term solution, echoing this submission, by theCatholic Church:
The aim should be to achieve food security for all in the UK. Household food security may be defined as households having adequate resources and access to be able to buy healthy, affordable food at all times.
• Drawn from An Evidence Review for the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, by Andrew Forsey.