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How food banks became mainstream: the new reality of the working poor

We should support food banks, but our aim - through things like the living wage - should be to wipe them out.

Volunteers put a selection of tinned food together at a food bank
Volunteers put a selection of tinned food together at a food bank at St Paul's Church in Brixton. Photograph: Getty Images

There is a mum in the Cotswolds who creeps about her living room. Silently when her children aren’t looking, she gathers up toys around the edges. Maybe a teddy bear, maybe a colouring book. She’s tired after work, but she’s picking them up now so she can hide and wrap them later. By the time Christmas comes around, her children might think they’re new.

You wouldn’t expect this mum to need a food bank. She is not a single parent. Both she and her partner are in work. They don’t live in a council house; they have a fixed rate mortgage in the leafy heart of southern England. This family didn’t want to speak out for fear of judgement, but the old stereotype of who goes hungry is changing. We need to catch up with the new reality of the working poor.

As Britain teeters on the brink of triple dip recession, some 230,000 people are expected to turn to food banks this year. That’s an annual increase of 80 per cent. In the run up to Christmas, there are reports of fights breaking out across the country’s 290 food banks as household budgets are squeezed tighter by heating bills and Christmas presents. Food banks that once served a problematic, difficult minority are now helping many in the mainstream.

Kate* is one of the stories behind the statistics. She’s a dinner lady at a local school in Poplar, East London. She lives alone with three kids. Her finances were always on the brink, but when her youngest child was born eighteen months ago, it pushed her under. When the school liaison officer called around to check why Kate’s children weren’t at school, she found them at home with the gas off to save heating bills, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

“I was scared and didn’t ask for help,” says Kate, “The officer knocked on the door because I hadn’t sent the kids to school for two weeks because I couldn’t afford a packed lunch or the school dinners. They knew something was up because my kids had always had 100 per cent attendance.”

There’s something terrifying about a woman who works serving dinners for a living being unable to nourish her own children. Kate still works part time on £475 a month. She wants to go full time, but when she tried that the money she lost through qualifying for council tax and other benefits pushed her into rent arrears. Working tax credit already prevents her from getting free school meals. She literally can’t afford to work.

“You do feel scared and a bit ashamed, because it’s you that brought your kids into this world, and you should be able to feed them and look after them. But they (the food bank) didn’t judge. If it wasn’t for them the bailiffs would be coming.”

So what’s going wrong? Kate is a responsible mum and a master budgeter. She can tell you the price of every nappy brand, broken down according to different supermarket chains. She knows the price of milk formula by heart and where it’s on special offer. The problem is that no matter where you shop, the cost of basic goods outweighs your income. For millions of families working out the household budget on the back of an envelope this Christmas, the figures just don’t add up.

“It’s never the luxury things like wine and cars that go up,” says Kate. “They put up bread, milk, nappies, bus fares, train fares. But the wages and benefits haven’t kept up. My wages used to cover all the basics and now they don’t. How do I buy all these bits when they cost more and more money?”

The rising cost of living has coincided with another trend – the changing nature of the jobs market. Skilled blue collar jobs with decent pay and reliable hours have been replaced by low pay, white collar jobs on zero hour contracts. Jobs with decent salaries that allow people space to nurture a family seem out of date and old fashioned. Top executives might have got richer, but the middle is getting poorer.

“Our food banks serve people who are migrating downwards,” says Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust which overseas a network of outlets across the UK, “Incomes have not been rising in line with inflation, particularly for low paid people who are working more over time and facing work that is less certain.”

Look at where food banks are locating, and you’ll see his point. The area with the highest proportion of people being helped is actually the south west of England, where one out of 120 children eat from food banks. This makes complete sense, given that the cost of living is much higher than in the north. Low wages always put people at risk of poverty, but they get a whole lot more dangerous when local house, food and energy prices are higher.

The demographics of people visiting food banks are surprising too. According to the Trussell Trust, some 16 per cent of people who receive help from food banks are aged 16-24, whilst barely 1 per cent are pensioners. This may be because older people are less likely to be referred, but it’s also likely to be because they have more help with TV, pension and travel benefits. Although the Trust doesn’t formally ask visitors about their employment status, Mould estimates that some 50 per cent of food bank visitors come from households where at least one member has some form of work.

“When we first started in the 1990s we were seeing a lot of single homeless guys,” says Chris Davis, head of Southampton City Mission that has seen a massive increase in demand for its food and clothing banks in the south of the country, “Now the take up is accelerated and we’re seeing a lot more families, lots more with children. They’ll call up and say they don’t fit the traditional referrals, but we try and help.”

City Mission runs like most food banks. Social services and other agencies give out vouchers to people in need, which entitles them to a few days worth of food from the bank. Each person is only entitled to a few vouchers a year. But although food banks are only supposed to be used for emergencies, they are increasingly needed to prop up the new economic realities of daily life:

“Southampton is losing its industry,” says Davis, “Shipbuilding has moved to Portsmouth, British American Tobacco has gone and Ford Transit vans are going too. A whole strand of skills and labour have gone. So many jobs are part time and low paid in the service industry, and that’s the problem.”

The other big reason cited for the growth in food banks is changes to the benefits system. Some say that benefits no longer cover the cost of living, but still more suffer simply because of bureaucratic failure. Some 31 per cent of people using food banks say “benefit delays” are their main reason for seeking help, particularly in the inner cities. Paul Mason has documented this trend extensively, quoting experts who see food banks as the new “backstop for the welfare system”.

Walk into my local food bank in Peckham, and you can see why. This small office, tucked next to a pay day loan store and a betting shop, is run by the local charity Pecan. It’s packed with prams, and people of different ethnicities and ages jostling for seats. People are tense and argumentative. A system of ticketing has been introduced to stop fights breaking out. When there were five or six people coming there was plenty to go around, now numbers have quadrupled and people have become more aggressive.

Ian is one of those waiting. It’s his first time at the food bank, and despite being squeezed in the sweltering room he hasn’t taken off his woolly black hat. He worked full time for British Rail for almost thirty years, and now he’s on Jobseeker's Allowance. He’s living on about £100 a fortnight, but it’s only recently that the extra cost of living has pushed him into rent arrears. He’s down to two meals a day, giving up the rest to make sure his partner and his cat have enough to eat before he feeds himself.

“I don’t like being unemployed,” he says, “I like money in my account. I applied for loads of jobs, but it’s not helpful. You try applying for jobs aged 57. I’ve always worked and found work, now no one wants to know. You’re on the scrap heap.”

Too many people are like Ian. On the surface they say they need help because benefits don’t provide the basics, but the reality is that work is not available or doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of living anyway. Talking to others in the room, many are in the same position. Mums want to work but can’t cover childcare bills. Men want to work but can’t afford to lose out-of-work benefits. And so it goes on.

On the surface, the food bank looks like a sticking plaster for a broken benefits system, but in too many cases the benefits system is itself a sticking plaster for a broken economy.

This isn’t to say they food banks aren’t necessary or important. If they were to close or their two million volunteers were to walk away, the only option for people like Ian would be destitution or starvation. As Mould puts it:

“We get challenged a lot on being a sticking plaster. But we’re not trying to solve the root causes - other agencies have that responsibility. But I always ask people ‘Do you believe in first aid?’ Ambulances don’t work on accidents being prevented, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish ambulances. It just means we need other systems to look at root causes.”

Food banks then, will only ever address the symptoms of a broken economy. More than food banks, we need new banks. New institutions that will lend to smaller businesses, different regions and industries with more stable jobs. We need vocational education that attracts new growth and apprenticeships that develop new leaders. Mould supports the spread of the living wage as the biggest cure for the problem he’s trying to tape up. We should support his food banks, but our ultimate aim should be to wipe them out.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities