The news that nearly one million people, including over 330,000 children, were supported by a food bank last year hit the headlines just before the Easter weekend. The figures came from the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs a network of over 400 food banks in the UK, and which has seen a three-fold increase in food parcel distributions on the year before.
The Trussell Trust data gave rise to an almighty brouhaha in the media, and a prolonged argument over the Easter weekend about whether food banks were naïvely providing resources to people without need or filling a crucial gap in failed government policies.
A three-fold increase is undoubtedly worrying, but it’s worth acknowledging that the one million figure is still a small proportion of the UK’s overall population and that this figure does not take account of the fact that some families will need to go back to the food bank more than once. Nonetheless, the idea that any families are going hungry in the sixth wealthiest country in the world is shocking and an issue that deserves the attention of donors and philanthropists.
Much of the media attention has focused on the Trussell Trust’s claim that much of this surge in demand has been down to short-term money troubles. While this might be due to an unexpected expense, such as repairs for a broken washing machine, the Trussell Trust has said that 83 per cent of its food banks report an increase in people needing their help because of benefit payments being temporarily suspended or ‘sanctioned’. This is usually due to a family member not sticking to the conditions on which benefits are given, eg if a parent is not considered to be actively looking for work or leaves a job voluntarily.
However, this focus on benefits sanctions shifts attention from the much more worrying, longer term trends that are also fuelling demand for food banks. According to the Trussell Trust, one in five food bank referrals last year were down to families’ income being too low to pay for food, while other reasons given were being in debt, being unemployed or not being able to afford to pay for your children’s meals while they’re on school holidays (and thus not receiving free school meals). Food parcels can’t solve these problems.
So what should donors worried about food poverty respond and how can they help? At NPC, we think there are three rules of thumb that donors can use to guide their giving: Give cash, not food. Donating a tin of beans will not help tackle the longer-term reasons why many families are visiting food banks in the first place. Providing funding can be used to buy food if necessary, but can also be used more flexibly to tackle the underlying causes.
Give to food banks providing a range of services. Many food banks provide a wide range of services, than just food parcels — such as welfare advice, or help with managing debts. By supporting food banks that provide these services, there is more chance that people visiting them will get signposted to support that addresses these needs.
Consider other solutions. The Trussell Trust data suggest a need for a more systematic and long-term approach to tackling food poverty in the UK, which food banks and welfare advice will never overcome by themselves. Donors should also consider supporting initiatives taking a more radical approach to social inequality, such as the Living Wage Campaign.
The Trussell Trust figures highlight the worrying problem of food poverty in the UK. But if we’re going to tackle this problem, we’re going to need more than just a few tins of beans.
David Bull is a researcher at NPC