Why a no-deal Brexit could be calamitous for food banks

For households already living through a crisis in food security, no-deal Brexit could be a perfect storm of disaster. 

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Bad news seems to be accumulating at a record pace. Thanks to the frequent and stark warnings about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, so are stockpiles of food.

Britons have already spent billions amassing private stores of provisions, while big supermarkets like Tesco and Marks and Spencer’s have been filling their warehouses with non-perishables since just after the Christmas rush.

A modern cross-border food supply chain is a wonder of efficiency and, presently, a ceaseless whirr of containers passes unencumbered through ports like Folkstone and Dover, speeding Italian tomatoes and Spanish heads of lettuce towards our local supermarket shelves, all in the quick and convenient manner to which we’ve become accustomed.

But if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October, gridlock caused by radically different customs arrangements will knock the balance of this finely-calibrated operation sharply out of kilter.

Justin King, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, told BBC Newsnight that gaps will appear on supermarket shelves within a week, noting that “something between 30 and 40 per cent of our produce at that time of the year is coming from the European Union.”

What has been less remarked upon regarding these premonitions of calamity is that the UK is already living through a crisis in food security of its own making, caused by nearly a decade of punitive austerity measures, which will likely be significantly worsened in a no-deal scenario.

The number of Britons relying on food banks to meet their needs has been rapidly increasing since 2010. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, gave out 1.6 million emergency food packages in the year ending this March.

It marked a rise of 19 per cent on 2018, driven by benefit sanctions, in-work poverty and delays tied to the roll-out of Universal Credit. Now, no-deal Brexit could be a perfect storm of disaster for the country’s most vulnerable households.

Disruption to food supply chains will mean less food on the supermarket shelves, and stockpiling by households and businesses means much-needed donations towards food banks will probably decline.

A falling pound, along with new tariffs on imported food, will drive the price of a weekly shop by up to 10 per cent, according to Bank of England governor Mark Carney, pushing already stretched family budgets beyond their limits.

Economic recession is a near certainty in the case of a disorderly exit. A report commissioned by the Belgian government predicts over 500,000 people in the UK, around five per cent of the workforce, will lose employment.

Food banks, operating on charitable donations and volunteer manpower, are engaged in a desperate battle to meet existing needs. It’s unclear how they could cope with the levels of poverty that would follow even a fraction of those estimated job losses.

The Trussell Trust does not have the facilities to centrally stockpile food supplies, and so plans to shift supplies around its network of some 1,200 food banks.

“We’re giving Brexit guidance to food banks – but there’s a limit to how much we can prepare for and mitigate its consequences,” said Garry Lemon, the Trussell Trust’s director of policy, external affairs and research.

“The responsibility to prevent more people being pulled into poverty lies with our Government. We cannot rely on support driven by volunteers and food donations to pick up the pieces, particularly in the event of no-deal.”

Last month Sustain, a group representing the Trussell Trust and other organisations in the food aid sector, has called on the government to establish a no-deal hardship fund to administer cash grants to society’s most vulnerable. There has been no response to their request as yet.

For the hundreds of independent food banks, which operate in schools, community centres and churches around the country, resources are even more scarce and there has been little time to plan.

PATCH, an independent food bank in Pembrokeshire, is dealing with a 25 per cent increase in food parcels needed due to sanctions and Universal Credit. “We struggle to keep up with the need now, so we couldn’t stockpile anyway,” said manager Tracy Olin.

James Quayle, who runs a food bank in Paddington, told the New Statesman that donations had not yet been affected, but he is making contingency plans under the assumption that its financial reserves and food sources will be unreliable after October.

When the government announced £2.1bn funding to bolster preparations for no deal, Chancellor Sajid Javid said the money “will ensure we are ready to leave on 31 October — deal or no deal.”

The many families in Britain already finding it difficult to put food on the table will wonder how far that “we” stretches.

Ruairi Casey is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes for the Irish Times and Vice.