Why do so many people need food banks? (The rise and rise of food banks, part II)

We’ve all seen the headlines. Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK have been forced to turn to food banks for help over the last year, and the organisations that run them are predicting that demand will only increase in 2013. To spell that out, in case it’s not entirely crystal clear already, this means that hundreds of thousands of families can’t afford to feed themselves and are, therefore, going hungry. In the United Kingdom. In the 21st century.

Let’s recap the statistics: 130,000 people had to turn to food banks to make ends meet in 2012. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food-bank provider, predicts that a quarter of a million people will need food banks over the coming year. A survey in early 2012 found that one in five mums are missing meals so that their children can eat.

So why, when we live in one of the richest countries in the world, are so many being forced to rely on emergency food aid or go hungry?

Well, let’s start off with the context. We all know the British economy is in pretty dire straits, and has been for over 4 years now. With many predicting an unheard-of ‘triple-dip’ recession, it doesn’t look like things are going to get better any time soon.

But what, specifically, is causing this growth in the number of hungry people in the UK when our country is still (relatively speaking) extremely well off and we have (again relatively speaking) some of the best welfare provision in the world? There seem to be three broad causes

  1. Firstly, the recession and the government’s shoddy attempts to deal with it mean that people on low wages have been hit by the double whammy of incomes that don’t rise and prices that just won’t stop rising. Of course, incomes for many people are stagnating, but when you’re already on a low income, when the prices of food and energy rise relentlessly and your wages don’t, of course you’re going to find it harder – or even impossible – to make ends meet. As Chris Mould, the executive chair of the Trussell Trust, pointed out in a recent interview, it now costs 63% more to heat an average home and 35% more to provide a standard set of meals than it did five years ago. Think about that. Incomes haven’t risen anywhere near 35%, let alone over 60%, in the same time period, so it’s no wonder that poor families have to choose between feeding their kids and heating there homes.
  2. A second crucial factor pushing those on low wages into desperation is the changing job market. Over the last few years, many people have seen their jobs go from permanent and full-time to temporary and part-time. This means less job security and, for many hit by reduced shifts or hours, an even lower income. Despite the government’s bilious rhetoric about shirkers and strivers (essentially concluding that those in poverty deserve to be there because they don’t ‘try’ hard enough), those on the food bank frontline report that around half of the people who come to them are from households with at least one person in work. The sad fact is that, for those at the bottom, work just doesn’t pay – at least, not enough to cover the bare essentials for survival.
  3. Finally, for those who – often because of rising prices, stagnating wages and a more insecure job market – have to rely on benefits, the coalition’s short-sighted benefit cuts and other changes to the benefits system are edging many more closer to crisis. This is clear from reports that as many as one third of people coming to use food banks are doing so because they’re waiting on benefits that have been somehow delayed.

These three factors are compounded by a government that is out of touch and unsympathetic to the situation it has created for thousands, and which appears to truly not give a toss about the soaring levels of inequality it is presiding over. Until the Christmas headlines about food bank demand rising, most ministers had never seen a reason to even visit a food bank.

Are food banks the answer? Obviously not. The problem is a broken economic system and a government apparently uninterested in doing much about it. Food banks can’t possibly be expected to solve such a problem. They are, by definition, an essential stop gap measure, designed to help out people in a state of crisis. That the number of people forced to turn to food banks is rising so sharply should be an alarm bell for our government. But it’s sadly one that currently seems to be falling on deaf ears.