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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.