As in America, with the cuts to the food stamps system, people in the UK rely on volunteer-run food banks to help them if they cannot afford to eat. Now dependence on food banks has grown so exponentially that the food banks are running out of food. Glasgow City Mission had to close its doors this week as the shelves were left bare. It is not just the unemployed and the homeless who rely on them, many families on low incomes are increasingly turning to their nearest food bank to survive.
There is growing anger and dissent at the government for the effect of its sweeping welfare reforms on the poorest in society. Many on benefits have had them cut or been penalized. Church leaders are rallying in their outspoken opposition to the changes. Bishops of all denominations are calling it a “national crisis.” The evidence is clear that more and more families cannot put food on the table.
The Trussel Trust is the largest operator of food banks and last year gave out food parcels to nearly 15,000 people. However, this year, they have already given out half that amount already in January alone. It had been their busiest month on record. They are now predicting they will have to help over 55,000 people in this financial year, based on the figure of 7000 per month.
These figures are high enough, but they are not the whole picture. This is just for Scotland where the Glasgow City Mission ran out of food. Over the whole of the UK they gave out emergency supplies to a staggering 738,000 and easily expect to top the million mark in 2014. The director of the Trussel Trust, Chris Mould, said sadly, that “somebody in a food bank is at the end of their tether.” When people completing run out of resources and cannot eat, or feed their kids, it has terrible effects on their health and well-being, and many find it most distressing to have to come and ask for a hand-out.
The Trussel Trust collect the food for its centers by collections at supermarkets and at churches. Individuals can also drop off supplies. It is in essence a Robin Hood scheme, with those who can afford to donating to the hungry. They are scrupulous about their non-assimilation with the welfare state itself. They are independent and charitable and do not take any money from government.
What they would like to see is less and less people needing them, not more and more, but this looks most unlikely in the foreseeable future, and many other charities are stepping in to set up food banks such as the Salvation Army.
The Trussel Trust was originally established to help those in Bulgaria, but it began to realize the problems were right on their doorstep. They are based in Salisbury in Wiltshire. They strongly refute that numbers are artificially inflated by people coming back for food time after time. For most it is an absolute last resort. The parcel contains enough basics to last for three days.
GPs have referred more people to food banks than ever before and they are also sent in by social workers and by job centers. Although there is talk in high office of Britain being in recovery, Chris Mould said that people who come to the food banks “do not feel there is an economic recovery underway.”
A United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said that in wealthy countries, many “live very close to the edge” and that increased need for food banks in developed countries was a sign of response to rapid need. Supermarkets may be full of food, he said, but that will do nothing for food poverty unless the poorest can access it. 5,500 were actually treated for malnutrition last year in Britain.
A report by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) also found that many had turned to extortionate payday loans to afford to buy some basic food, with crippling interest rates to then try to repay. This report also established that it is not the availability of the food parcels that is accelerating demand, as some ministers have tried to claim, but that the food banks are adjusting to the demand. People have nowhere else to turn to. In one of the world’s richest countries.
The UK government remains defiant about its policies and claims it has helped the least well-off by cutting the rate of basic income tax and freezing fuel duty. This has led to accusations that they are in massive denial about the scale of the problem.
With the food banks running out of food, it is a problem that cannot be solved by a government that seems to say “Let them eat cake.”
By Kate Henderson