Fourteen years ago, in the city of Salisbury, Paddy Henderson was fundraising for a little known local charity called the Trussell Trust, which focused on helping orphaned children in Bulgaria. One evening, he received a phone call from a desperate local mother, who said, “my children are going to bed hungry tonight – what are YOU going to do about it?”
This was the incident that sparked the birth of a movement and the creation of the Trussell Trust’s first “food bank”. It was a natural compassionate response to discovering that somebody in 21st century Britain could not afford food.
The Trussell Trust now includes 400 food banks, and there are hundreds more locally based initiatives across the UK. This rapid growth sparked a wider debate about hunger in the UK that evolved as commentators tried to apportion blame.
We established the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty to comprehensively investigate this phenomenon, looking beyond the headlines and the immediate statistics to the deeper issues. We wanted to answer two questions.
Firstly, why are people skipping meals because they can’t afford food for their children in the sixth richest country in the world? Secondly, what can politicians do to help the charity movement that had responded so magnificently to this need?
We heard often harrowing testimonies from over 150 witnesses in evidence sessions around the country, and received written submissions from 250 more. The more we heard, the clearer it became that few food bank referrals are the same. Although they can be broadly categorised on a tickbox form, the human stories behind the statistics were often complex tales of successive hardships, culminating in a crisis.
We also heard stories of people who had been let down by the state. Unlike some commentators, however, we do not subscribe to the view that the need for food banks would be eradicated overnight by simply throwing money at the welfare state. As Jack Monroe told us, “if my benefits had been paid quickly, in full and on time, I would have been able to meet my living costs”.
Benefit delays have long been an issue. In 2006/7, benefit delays accounted for 34 per cent of referrals to Trussell Trust food banks. In 2013/14, 30 per cent of referrals were due to benefit delay. We have a welfare state that is positively creaking under the strain of adjusting entitlements in response to everyday relationship changes in modern life, and in need of holistic reform. Without a more thoughtful and flexible safety net in place, constant gaps in payments will remain whilst the system “processes” life changes – and so too will the problems they cause.
But it also became apparent that there was a perfect storm brewing over the last decade that reached far beyond those living on benefits.
Britain experienced the highest rate of inflation amongst advanced western economies between 2003 and 2013, which had a disproportionate impact on those on the lowest incomes. In the last decade, the price of food rose by nearly 50 per cent, the price of fuel by a staggering 150 per cent and rents by a third. Wages in the same period increased by just 28 per cent.
The reality is that too many of the poorest in society did not benefit from economic growth and were still living from one pay cheque to the next: where the slightest change, such as needing to find extra money for lunch in the school holidays, could be disastrous, and often marked the start of a vicious cycle of debt.
But the most shocking fact that our inquiry uncovered was that just 2 per cent of edible surplus food in this country is given to charities like FareShare. One food bank manager told us he was offered 9,864 Cornish pasties because a lorry was 17 minutes late delivering them. Our frustration at the scale of needless waste in this country is compounded by the unacceptable taxpayer subsidies that are given to convert perfectly good surplus food into green energy, which must end.
When a family turns to the food bank in a time of need, they are met with warmth and compassion that is qualitatively different to what the state can provide. So when they are provided with food, it acts as a social gateway to a discussion about the wider problems in someone’s life.
We believe this offers a valuable opportunity for us to redesign a fragmented approach to support. We want to help more food banks evolve into hubs where services like debt and welfare advice are in one place, and end the system where people are sent from pillar to post in a constant cycle of referral.
We therefore propose a practical solution. We will bring together the voluntary sector, stakeholders and retailers in a new national voice: Feeding Britain. This will have three key goals that have been difficult to address by individual food banks in isolation. First, we will seek to double the redistribution of surplus food. Second, we will pilot twelve regional hubs that bring local agencies together. Third, we will pilot schemes to tackle school holiday hunger.
This is not about bureaucratic intervention from central government to wade in and impose a solution, or a talking shop so politicians can be seen to be doing something. We strongly believe that the best solutions are locally conceived and driven by the voluntary sector. We want to help connect the resources and the expertise that exist. The greatest asset of our food banks is not a stock of tins and packets, but the people staffing them: we hope that they will help us tackle the scandal of 21st century hunger.
Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead and co-founder and chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty; John Glen is the Conservative MP for Salisbury, PPS to Eric Pickles and co-author of the evidence paper for the group’s inquiry with the Trussell Trust