“The fear felt in this city is palpable,” says Ian Byrne. “It’s not just people accessing food banks who are terrified, it’s the volunteers as well.”
The Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby describes how even before the present cost-of-living crisis a third of the city was living in food insecurity: skipping meals, going hungry or not eating for a whole day because they were unable to afford food. “And now everywhere they look they’re seeing huge price rises,” he adds.
Despite this grim forecast Byrne believes that the end of food banks is within reach. Food banks have become the solution to Britain’s hunger crisis. In 2009 there were only 30 food banks in the charity Trussell Trust’s network in Britain. Today there are 1,300 — more than there are branches of McDonald’s in the UK. There are also more than 1,000 independent food banks. The Trussel Trust distributed a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels in the year ending March 2021: an 128 per cent rise in the last five years.
Food banks, which are mainly stocked with surplus food from supermarkets and charities, have been left to step in for the state. Filling supermarket collections has become an act of good citizenship, while Conservative MPs and former prime ministers have used them for photo ops.
[See also: When Tory MPs visit foodbanks]
Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive, has warned that we are “teetering on the brink” of normalising food banks as a response to poverty, without addressing its causes. Indeed, when asked about rising food bank use in 2017, the Conservative minister Jacob Rees-Mogg replied that he found it “rather uplifting” and that it “shows what a good, compassionate country we are”.
The rise in demand has been linked to austerity-era policies, particularly changes to the benefit system including the benefit cap, delays to Universal Credit payments and reductions. Low-income UK households had already cut back on essentials such as food or heating to make ends meet before inflation ran rampant this year.
Now, with living costs soaring, along with the effective £1,040-a-year cut to Universal Credit (which had been raised by £20 a week at the start of the pandemic) and increase in National Insurance contributions, many are running out of options. The Food Foundation, which campaigns for affordable and sustainable food, revealed that in one million households someone went an entire day without food in February. Next year 1.3 million people will be pushed into absolute poverty because of a lack of support in Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement, the Resolution Foundation think tank has calculated.
“Hunger is a political choice, and Sunak made his,” says Byrne. “This explosion of food banks is not normal. The system is broken. We need radical long-term solutions.”
Two years ago Byrne started a campaign with a national grassroots network of football fans, Fans Supporting Foodbanks, calling for the “right to food” to be enshrined in law. In an open letter to Sunak before the Spring Statement in March, Byrne asked for the Chancellor to provide universal free school meals, funding for community kitchens and a legal framework for the government to ensure food security, enforced by an independent regulator.
A legal right to food would mean that the government could be held to account for hunger and made to take systematic intervention. For example, the recent cut to benefits would have been deemed “illegal” under right to food legislation, Byrne says, because ministers were warned that it would plunge 840,000 people into poverty, including 300,000 children.
As poverty rises, the campaign for a right to food has taken on a renewed urgency. “This isn’t a sectarian mission — Labour versus Tories — it’s a humanitarian one,” says Byrne.
The Treasury doesn’t seem interested so far, but elsewhere the idea is gaining momentum. Scotland’s Good Food Nation Bill, currently moving through Holyrood, is intended to provide a basis for a transition to a fair, healthy and sustainable food system that realises a right to food for everyone by 2025.
In January 2021 Liverpool became the UK’s first “Right to Food City” when the city council pledged its full support to the campaign. Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield are among 17 other cities and towns that have followed suit.
Community food hubs across the country are working to create a food service that goes beyond emergency provision. The National Food Service (NFS), founded in Sheffield in 2018, is a network of social eating spaces aiming to ensure everyone’s right to food is met and tackle social isolation. It now has 11 branches, from Glasgow to Falmouth.
“We want to create the next public service,” explains Carys Kettlety, director of the Bristol branch. “Kitchens and dining spaces built by each community for each community, free at the point of use.”
The original NFS is Sheffield’s Foodhall Project. Its aim is to break down the divide between user and provider, operating as a community café on a contribute-what-you-can basis: from chopping carrots to hosting a workshop or event.
“We’ve had people make Ottolenghi-style ten-course meals, a whole evening of beans on toast, and even an Indian feast made with spices sent from someone’s mum,” says Alyce Biddle, non-executive director of the project. “We also have a pro-pudding policy.”
While she notes that food banks do vital work, she says “it’s possible that the people relying on them miss out on all the other things that food brings beyond basic nutrition. Opportunities to cook and eat together are also important.”
Like food banks, the NFS relies mainly on supermarkets. In 2018 the government began handing out grants to charities redistributing food waste on ecological grounds. Critics argue that this contributes to a food system that relies on unsustainable production and low-paid workers (who themselves are particularly likely to face food insecurity). Recipients, meanwhile, are often left with low-quality, unwanted food or do not get what they most need.
“We once had a delivery of 10kg of cranberry sauce from FareShare [the food waste charity],” recalls Kettlety. “It offers little choice and can paradoxically create food waste.”
Recent research from the think tank Common Wealth sets out how a “right to food” could be achieved by developing locally and democratically run food systems that better meet social and environmental needs. An example of how this kind of system might work in practice is the Granville Community Kitchen in Kilburn, northwest London. It supports access to food through local growing, says Leslie Barson, its co-founder, and is setting up its own farm.
Growing food not only feeds people, Barson points out, it also helps them to find work, builds skills and education, and improves their wellbeing. “It’s about empowering community through food.”
In the current crisis these food bank alternatives offer a glimmer of hope. Can they create a new vision of how we relate to food and to each other? That, Byrne concedes, is “the million-dollar question”.