The rise and rise of the food bank

They call it a "bank" for a reason.

A woman walks into the Kings Church centre, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of a sports jacket twice her size. On the run from domestic abuse, she’s only been in the city two weeks and she’s hungry.

Inside it’s warm, fluorescently lit and smells faintly of disinfectant. The other visitors sitting at old computers in jeans and trainers don’t notice her enter. The only clue about what the centre offers is an abandoned trolley in one corner and some volunteers sorting through tins behind a counter. She looks around, “Is this a homeless shelter or something?” she asks.

More people are visiting food banks every day. There are now over 200 operating across the UK, serving everywhere from the densely concentrated poverty of Tower Hamlets to the rural poverty of Okehampton and the isolated highlands around Inverness.

The biggest is in Coventry, where over 7,000 people have walked away with packs of tinned food, sugar and tea since it launched last year. In a time of economic decline, the number of people visiting food banks doubled to 128,967 last year.

With no sign of the economy recovering, experts predict that they will be serving over half a million people by the next election. Two more open every week.

“Inflation in food, rising living costs and falling wages all push people to count their pennies, and a huge volume of people are finding that they can’t make it to the end of the week,” says Chris Mould, executive chairman of the Trussell Trust which operates the only network of food banks in the UK, “After two or three years of hardship people run out of people to ask for help, and savings have all diminished. This country is facing some hard truths.”

Everyone has their own story about why they came to a food bank, but two big factors play a part in most of them.

Some 29 per cent of visitors say that they have been forced to look for help because of benefits changes. Even if you’re entitled to help under the government’s new system, a six-week delay is standard.

In that space, some of the most vulnerable are left with nothing. But benefits are not the only reason. Low pay is more commonly cited as a reason for seeking help than unemployment, with some 19% of foodbank visitors finding that their wages cannot meet basic costs. Visitors have been let down by the market as well as the state.

Portsmouth food bank operates on the same principle to those across the UK. Those in need are given vouchers by partner agencies – Sure Start centres, social services, schools etc – and that entitles you to free bundle of soup, beans, rice pudding, tinned tomatoes, tea, cereal and other basics.

The food is nutrionally balanced, but the supply isn’t endless. Each voucher entitles you to three days worth of food, and each guest is only allowed three vouchers. Foodbanks are supposed to provide help in a crisis, not a long-term supply.

Although the need for food banks might be dark, their existence offers hope. With no government funding, they are a fantastic example of community action. According to the Trussell Trust, some 1,225 tonnes of food were donated last year, distributed by some 4,360 volunteers in partnership with 1,423 schools and 2,025 churches.

The organisation is religious, but their help comes with no ties, and although the Portsmouth bank has won some rare funding from the Lottery to support their work, most of the food comes from local donations.

Dotted around Portsmouth’s supermarkets you’ll see donation points where you can give away one or two items from your weekly shop. Volunteers stand outside shopping centres with lists of particular things they’d love you to pick up.

“Local communities are really bothered about the impact of the recession,” says Mould, who eventually wants to see some 700 foodbanks across the country, “As soon as you highlight that their neighbours are suffering people want to do something. It’s very heartwarming. They will help if there’s something practical they can do.”

They call it a food “bank” for a reason. Volunteers are encouraged to leave a deposit today, because tomorrow they might need to make a withdrawal. People like Kelly who have relied on foodbanks to get them through a crisis often come back when they’re on their feet, walking in with overflowing bags of shopping and smiling because they want to give something back.

This builds ownership. When a community is asked to help it makes them think about the poverty on their doorstep. It forces them to engage with poverty and take responsibility for it in a way that blind state services might not. This is important.

As Mant said as the bank closed for the day, "Any of us could find ourselves in the same position, but for the Grace of God.”


Donations of food are stacked on shelves at a foodbank centre in Salisubury. Credit: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.