Every week for the past year, Neil Robson has made a trip to his local Co-op and spent around £20 on a bag of shopping that he then carries to theWandsworth food bank in south London. Before he leaves home, he consults a list of the most-wanted items on their website, noting what they’re running out of (basic toiletries, UHT milk, tinned meat, tinned fish). This week he adds a tin of sustainably-sourced tuna to the bag.
Robson is a retired human resources manager in his 60s, who has never previously been involved in community charity projects. What drives him to make this regular gesture? “Anger. How can it be that there should be people so stretched for cash that they can’t get the money they need for food? I am not a churchgoer; I do this in a secular capacity. My motto, like a Victorian embroidered sampler, is: ‘My neighbour must not go hungry.’”
Robson has devoted considerable time to researching what might be causing the huge surge in food bank use. “I’ve been reading about people who, through no fault of their own, are not getting the money they need. I am affronted – shocked that in this wonderful country, people are stuck in a situation where they truly don’t have enough money to eat for the next couple of days.”
Food banks have become one of the most potent symbols of the coalition administration and a key theme in the election campaign. In 2010, the food bank was an unfamiliar concept, but five years later, more than 1,000 are operating around the country. The UK’s largest food bank operator said that in 2014-15, it distributed enough emergency food to give more than a million people three days’ supply. The first issue Jeremy Paxman confronted David Cameron with in his televised interview was food banks; Cameron revealed that he did not know how many there were in the UK. The Labour party has said the rise in food bank use is a sign of a failed welfare state, and promised to slash the number of people reliant on them.
What has caused this dramatic rise? For frontline workers, the explanation is simple: that the reform of the welfare system, austerity, the recession and rising living costs have created a pernicious cocktail where people have found themselves unable to cope, struggling to get assistance from the state, and forced to turn to charities for emergency help. According to the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, with more than 1,000 affiliated food distribution centres, about 43% of people who come to them seeking help cite benefit changes or delays as the cause of their difficulties; around 22% say it is simply the result of low income.
A cross-party report in December pointed to structural issues such as delays to benefit payments and harsher sanctioning policies (cutting payments to those who haven’t complied with jobcentre rules), combined with low wages and high living costs. More than 900,000 jobseeker’s allowance claimants were subject to sanctioning penalties in 2013/14 because of a failure to comply with Department for Work and Pensions rules.
But politicians on the right have been searching for other plausible explanations. Cameron has occasionally described food banks as a manifestation of the Conservative notion of “big society” in action (Ed Miliband remarked, “I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain”). Chief whip Michael Gove suggested that food bank users were guilty of taking decisions that demonstrated they were “not best able to manage their finances”, while theConservative peer, Baroness Anne Jenkin, a member of the all-party inquiry into hunger and food poverty, concluded that “poor people do not know how to cook”.
Robson is reluctant to see his actions as a demonstration of the big society in action. “The big society strikes me as a political construct, a tainted venture. It’s an alternative when the state starts stepping back and the local community steps forward to fill in the space.” He is annoyed by the number of politicians who have been disparaging about the work of Britain’s food banks. Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, has accused the Trussell Trust of publicity-seeking and “scaremongering”, describing food bank users as “often people with dysfunctional lives, people who have been caught in drug addiction and family breakdown”. Ex-Conservative MP Edwina Currie said people who use food banks waste their money on tattoos and dog food.
As Robson sees it, the work of the food bank “is in step with the proud tradition we have in this country that philanthropists step forward in times of difficulty. Once we start passing judgment on how other people spend their money and run their lives, we leave the door wide open for them to start criticising us and how we spend our money.”
He doesn’t stay when he drops his donation off. “It’s not my business to chat to them,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to intrude. I hope that someone who doesn’t have much in their cupboard can have some food that will be healthy. It is a demonstration that they are not alone. I don’t want to be patronising, but I want you to feel a bit better about yourself because I bet you are feeling low. That is the emotional message I want to send with my tin of tuna. If I can boost someone’s morale and show respect for them, then I am happy to do it.”
Robson hands his tin of tuna, along with his other purchases, to Dan Frith, the food bank manager. Frith began working with Wandsworth’s five newly opened centres last year when he returned from South Africa, where he had been working at a drop-in centre for street children.
“I was surprised by the food banks when I came back from South Africa,” Frith says. “I would like to say I am not easily shocked, but a few cases have been hard to hear. Sometimes there are people coming who say they haven’t eaten for days. We offer tea and toast – sometimes we just observe how quickly people eat the toast and how they would not be themselves until they have eaten it.”
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has said he was more shocked by meeting a hungry family at a food bank in the UK than by the suffering he had seen in African refugee camps, and Frith has wrestled with similar unease. “You can make comparisons,” he says. “The rich and the poor really live on each other’s doorsteps. That was quite shocking in South Africa, and London is like that, too. It must be linked to the recession, but I think we know that the need has been there for a while: it didn’t just appear in 2010.”
Sarah Chapman, who co-founded this food bank and volunteers here every week, helps to sort the donations and puts the tuna in the box of tinned fish and meat. “I knew there was a need,” she says. “Previously, local care professionals were buying food out of their own pockets.”
She hovers between feeling pleased with the marshalling of community energies to help people and despondency at the rising need. “We hope that, long term, food banks won’t be needed. We need to talk about why people come and what we can do to stop them from coming. I would be very uncomfortable if all we did was hand out food, thinking, ‘This is nice!’”
Last year, 5,017 people were fed by Wandsworth’s network of food banks; 24% said they needed help because of benefit delay, 19% because of benefit change, 23% because of low incomes. Chapman thinks the need for food banks has been increased by low wages and zero‑hours contracts. “Where are people’s safety nets when they experience bereavement and illness? People should be paid wages that are high enough that they can afford their own food. But I don’t see any evidence that we are going in the right direction.”
The coalition has already cut £20-£25bn from the welfare state, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and George Osborne has said he wants to cut another £12bn if he remains chancellor after the election. The national crisis loan system, whereby jobcentres paid out small grants and loans to vulnerable people in crisis situations (averaging around £50), has been devolved to local authorities and claimants have found it much harder to get a loan. At the same time, there has been a shift away from a country where people in need could expect to turn to the state for essential support, and a step towards a new model where charity is embraced as an essential part of the welfare state.
Emergency support is no longer something neutral and discreet; it often comes in the form of church handouts, which can bring unwelcome complications. Despite the best efforts of the charities, the donated food may not be what individuals need. Some outlets are supplied with supermarket castoffs, non-essential items such as bakewell tarts that haven’t sold, unusual flavours of yoghurt (lemon and coconut) that no one wants to buy. It’s not always fresh or a reliable source of sustenance. Oxfam has reported that some recipients are forced to return packages of rice, spaghetti and soup since, with no money, they are unable to pay for electricity to cook the food.
“We should be deeply distressed that we are a country that has tolerated inequality for so long, and pleased that local people in local communities care deeply about their neighbours,” says Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust. “A lot of the people we have helped need not have been in the trouble they were in. Improved public services, better social security performance, would have helped prevent tens of thousands of people from getting into trouble.”
Sandra Harding hands out tea to the people coming in. She volunteers here when she isn’t working, because she knows what it’s like to need help from a food bank; four years ago, she was on the receiving end. “I felt humiliated, I suppose. That’s maybe why I wanted to volunteer.
“I was in a lot of debt. I got a couple of bags of food. When they come in here, a lot of them are embarrassed or sad. When you tell them that you have been through it yourself, it breaks the ice. It makes them realise it is not their fault they are in that situation. People stand taller when they leave.”
Although the Trussell Trust is a Christian body, over the past four years food bank volunteers have emerged in all communities. Jagraj Singh volunteers at Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh temple in Southall, west London, which feeds up to 10,000 people weekly; anyone is welcome. Although numbers are not formally monitored, he has seen a sharp increase in non-Sikh visitors. “We are seeing more people who are down on their luck, who have become homeless,” he says. Aware of the rising demand, volunteers are taking the Sikh practice of langar (offering a free communal meal) on to the streets of Southall and other parts of Britain.
Synagogues and mosques have also started offering more food parcels. “We shouldn’t just be waiting for these people to come to us,” Singh says. “We should be going to them. We’re feeding between 200 and 400 twice a week in Southall.”
Chaunte Campbell, 23, takes home the tin of tuna donated by Robson, with a bag of provisions that also contains spaghetti bolognese, a jar of hot chocolate powder, some meatball sauce, soup, hot dogs, noodles, Aunt Bessie’s dumpling mix, rice, longlife milk, Weetos, kitchen roll, toilet roll and apple juice.
She plans to make tuna bake for her five-year-old son that evening. “Tuna is expensive,” she says, “but fish is good for you; I like to try him on different types of food. I boil the pasta. When it’s nearly done, I put it into the glass dish, put cheese on it, mix in the tuna.”
This is the fourth time she has been to the food bank this year. “The first time was when my son turned five and my benefit changed from income support to jobseeker’s allowance. There was a delay. My money stopped, but they didn’t tell me it was going to stop. I only found out when I looked at my bank account.
“I had to come a few times after that. The council tax payments stopped, the housing benefit was stopped, because of this change in circumstances. Days turned into weeks without it being resolved. I was really worried. I was thinking, ‘I have no money, I have a small child, I don’t know what to do.’ I tried not to show him that mummy is going through problems. I didn’t want him to think that something was wrong.”
This time, her benefits have been reduced for two months, because she applied for only five jobs in a fortnight, when her agreement with the jobcentre stipulates that she should apply for six.
“That was all I was able to do. I wouldn’t apply for a job I know I couldn’t do. There were jobs out of London – I knew I couldn’t pick my son up and take him to school. I told them I was having problems looking for work. I said I have learning difficulties and I would like some help. They said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s easy.’ The next time I went to the jobcentre, they said, ‘Miss Campbell, how come you haven’t applied for enough jobs? I will have to sanction you.’ Now I only get £60 a fortnight instead of £120. Money is very tight. I am looking, but I can’t find any work; I’ve been looking for childcare, retail, voluntary sector.”
The food bank is two miles from Campbell’s home. She takes the bus if she has enough money, otherwise she walks. She isn’t embarrassed about using the food bank; she’s angry, and wants to talk about it to help reduce the stigma. “I want people to understand that there’s no need to be embarrassed about going to these places, because they really do help you a lot. When I come back, it is a weight off my shoulders. I feel very lucky, and so relieved.”
Hundreds of thousands of people across the country have benefited similarly over the past year, and many wrestle with this sense of gratitude and anger. Richard Brown, recovering from a series of heart attacks and recently split from his family, was told it would be three weeks before a claim for disability benefit would be processed. He was told he was not eligible for a crisis loan; in the meantime, he found himself living on “thin air”, and had to visit a food bank in Bournemouth.
“I was brought up in the army,” Richard says. “I felt ashamed. But the people in there make you feel so welcome. They have a chat with you, like a human being, not someone who has been pulled in off the streets.”
He believes some of the politicians who are disparaging about food bank users simply don’t understand the rigorous eligibility process, whereby people are referred, usually for a maximum of three visits during a crisis. “You have to pass certain criteria to be given a food voucher. You can’t just walk in because you’ve been out drinking and spent all your wages in one go. You have to prove there is a need.”
Brian, a researcher with a PhD in medical science, was shocked and furious to find himself driven to food banks after a car accident, marital breakdown and sudden unemployment left him without enough money to live on. He asked for his full name not to be used in this article, because he has recently returned to work.
The volunteers at the West Cheshire food bank were “kind, helpful, chatty people”, he says. “They didn’t judge me. They treated me like a normal person. Without them, who knows where I would have ended up?”
But he dislikes the concept of food banks. “We should feel ashamed that so many people have to rely on them,” he says. “The government has opted out. They have taken the fact that there are kind people and good organisations, and they have placed responsibility for feeding people in their hands and washed their hands of it. It’s criminal.”
Chaunte Campbell unpacks the food and puts it into her bare cupboards. Her son will be happy this evening, she says, because she has brought back his favourite cereal, Weetos. She has tried to protect him from the impact of the sanctions, making sacrifices herself to make sure he is always properly fed. “There have been days when I’ve eaten less,” she says.
She knows so many people who have had to turn to food banks that she no longer feels particularly emotional about the issue. “The majority of people at the school gates have used them,” she says. “We talk about it. Everyone has different reasons. I’m glad that we have food banks. Even in a rich country, there are people suffering and struggling.”