Food banks have been a growing phenomenon in Britain over the last few years. They have become Exhibit A in the argument that our wealth is inequitably shared, the economic recovery isn’t reaching everyone, and that poverty remains real and serious in Britain today. Here’s a example that arrived in my inbox yesterday.
That’s from Inequality Briefing, who use the rise of food banks to make the point that ‘more and more people in the UK cannot afford to eat’. There are a couple of problems with this.
First, the growth of food banks doesn’t prove the point that the makers of this graphic want to drive home. The Trussell Trust only launched its national food bank network in 2004, and from a handful of food banks the number grew to a couple of dozen over the first five years. It then doubled several years in a row to the 400+ we have today, with new food banks opening every week. As the number of food banks has soared, it’s little wonder that the number of people receiving food aid through them has soared too. Since there were no food banks in the 9os or the 80s, we have no way of knowing what the underlying demand has been over the years. Is the problem getting worse? Or are we seeing the take-up of huge unmet demand for emergency food aid that has always been there?
The graphic is wrong on a second front too. In the blue bar on the left, Equality Briefing imply that people are ‘starving’ in Britain, and that ‘millions of people do not have enough to eat each day’. Again, it’s far too simplistic to say that the rising distribution of food parcels shows that people are starving. Food banks are not a feeding programme, like soup kitchens or free school meals. Food banks offer emergency food aid, typically for three days, and the most common reason is delayed benefits payments. Two thirds of people come to a food bank just the one time – a temporary crisis of household budgeting, not ongoing hunger.
There are problems with the fact about children going to school hungry too. As I wrote about last year, are we sure that children are missing breakfast because they can’t afford it? Food is cheap in Britain. If children are hungry at school, is it because their families ‘can’t afford to eat’ as the infographic says, or because they’re disorganised, rushed, and generally chaotic?
The trouble with these sorts of assumptions about the significance of food banks is that it quickly makes the issue of hunger political and divisive. So on the one hand you have scare stories over what this tells us about Britain – a million people using food banks, says the Daily Mail, misconstruing the figure entirely and blaming the government. And on the other side you have knee-jerk denial of the problem, or even paranoid stories like Edwina Currie’s claim in the Spectator that food banks lead to the closure of corner shops. The government’s much-criticized refusal to meet the Trussell Trust and discuss food banks is entirely down to the politicization of the issue.
Polarising the debate on hunger in Britain just makes it harder to deal with the real issues – and there are real issues. The cost of food has risen 43% in the last eight years, while incomes have stagnated. That means people are spending a bigger proportion of their incomes on food, and the poorest 10% of households now spend almost a quarter of their income on food. That’s a real vulnerability, especially since the cost of housing and energy are rising too, and some people find themselves forced to choose between competing expenditures. Then again, we have an obesity crisis and still throw away a third of the food we buy, so this is clearly a complex cultural problem.
There are real problems around hunger and malnutrition in Britain, but we should be wary of using the spread of food banks to score political points.