Male and female having conversation on bridge.

The rise of the food bank: society in action

29 April 2015

The existence of, and the ever increasing reliance upon, food banks is an issue which has oft been mooted during the run up to the election with Jeremy Paxman ...

… going for the proverbial jugular early on in the candidates' debate when he levelled David Cameron with the suggestion that the increase in the number of food banks from 66 to 421 during the Coalition's term was evidence of the parties' failure to "fix broken Britain".

Whilst the number of food banks has indisputably increased, and the number of people relying on them is, quite frankly, shameful in a country that prides itself in having welfare provision for all of its citizens, is it right that they are reviled as being a problem or is their presence, perhaps, little more than an example of society in action? Where the elected have failed, society has stepped up.

The users of food banks have been referred by doctors, jobcentres, social workers or the police and on this referral will be provided with a parcel of three days worth of food from their local food bank. These food banks are designed as an emergency stopgap and people are, except for in exceptional circumstances, only able to collect up to three parcels. A shocking statistic published by The Trussell Trust, the UK's largest food bank provider, stated that 1,084,604 people received three days' food in 2014/15.

The even more shocking truth is that The Trussell Trust's 421 food banks are believed to account for only approximately half of the country's network, but there is no complete database of charities providing emergency food aid. This lack of curiosity as to the number of people slipping through the government's welfare net was highlighted by the Department for Work and Pensions when in 2013, in response to a Freedom of Information request, it stated that "the government does not monitor the use of food banks and has no plans to do so". The government also does not collect data on people living with food insecurity in the UK, despite John Middleton, vice-president at the Faculty of Public Health, revealing that GPs had reported a rise in Victorian-era diseases as a result of malnutrition as those on low incomes struggled to feed their families.

One particularly unsavoury suggestion as to why increasing numbers of families are relying on food banks came from the Conservative minister for welfare reform in 2013, Lord Freud, a former investment banker, who said that "if you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is…a free good and there's almost infinite demand".

Dickensian sentiment aside, the statement from Lord Freud highlights the bizarrely hostile attitude that exists within government towards food banks. What we have here is a societal response to a crisis, people recognising that for whatever reason (it should be noted that a recent study at the University of Oxford found that increased use of food banks was linked to higher unemployment and welfare cuts) state welfare is not reacting quickly enough and is not helping all of those most in need. Yet the government, and the opposition, seem to react to the existence of these food banks by labelling them as a problem rather than addressing the underlying cause and embracing their utility in the meantime.

These food banks highlight a solution, a viable way of assisting those in need with a quick turnaround time and yet, instead of monitoring the situation and working to assist the communities that rally around the needy, the state chooses to ignore the issue, blame somebody else or criticise. Whilst the election will not be won on issues such as these, it bears remembering that these food banks are a stark reminder of the fact that there is such a thing as a society and that it is a very different thing to the state.

Amelia Payne

Image attribution