How much longer can food banks pick up the pieces?

foodbank shelves

Plenty of donations… but how long will food banks cope?

‘We stick plasters on where people hurt. We’re not treating the disease.’

That comment, from a worker at a food bank in Hampshire, sums up the quandary food banks now find themselves in. More and more people are hurting; national figures from the Trussell Trust show a continuing escalation in the number of people seeking help from food banks, with enough parcels given out in the last year to feed one million people.

These figures tell only part of the story. There are numerous independent food banks that are not part of the Trussell Trust network, and nobody collects their statistics. Far from exaggerating the problem, the national headlines underestimate it.

Earlier this year I and a colleague, Rachel Papworth, conducted a study of food banks in this relatively affluent part of southern England. The research, published last week by the Bill Sargent Trust, confirms previous national studies in finding that people only turn to food banks as a last resort and do so because they are not getting enough help elsewhere.

Our interviews with food bank users and workers show the hidden costs of a creaking system of social support. The benefits system that is supposed to help the most vulnerable frequently fails them. People are turning to food banks because of delayed payments, punitive sanctions and because benefits don’t meet the cost of living.

One food bank user we met who received Employment and Support Allowance had been unconscious in hospital for 13 weeks as a result of an assault. During this period, his medical certificate lapsed so his benefit was stopped. JobcentrePlus wrote to him but no one had access to his house so the mail wasn’t collected.

People who use food banks are often accused of having poor budgeting skills. We found people who stretched every penny by rummaging through bins for food, going to household tips to replace broken items, and going without meals or eating only the very cheapest basics.

One told us: ‘The Citizens’ Advice Bureau said, “We’ll have to give you a voucher but you’ll have to come in here next week for a budgeting plan”. And, I thought, “Well, I budget my money!” I know what I’ve got to pay out. I went to the budgeting meeting, and the guy said, “It seems as if we’re wasting your time and you’re wasting our time because you’ve already budgeted your money. You can’t budget any more”.’

Another said: ‘It’s not like I go out and spend loads of money on myself … I’ve been very, very savvy and I’ve located a place where I can pick up clothes for free and I go down the tip a lot.’

We were told that increasing numbers of people using Hampshire’s food banks are in work – the ‘hardworking families’ and ‘strivers’ that are the familiar theme of government rhetoric. These hardworking families may be on zero-hours contracts or in minimum-wage jobs; often their wages are only just enough to live on, and any crisis might tip them over the edge.

A food bank worker told us: ‘We had a single parent in not so long ago who was on a zero hours contract and she’d, I think, only had her hours cut by half an hour a day but it had made a massive difference to her. You know it didn’t seem much in terms of time for the employer but it made a massive difference to her circumstances.’

Running out of food isn’t the real crisis for people who use food banks. It’s the culmination of a series of crises, often long-term and interlocking. A bag of food is not enough to put these people back on their feet, grateful as they are for it. If you have physical or mental health problems, if your relationship has broken up, if you have lost your job or your tenancy has been terminated, or if you suddenly have caring responsibilities, even three or four food parcels will not see you through.

Yet three or four parcels is all most food banks can offer. Food banks ration their resources effectively, insisting on referrals from appropriate professionals and only occasionally offering extra help to people in the most difficult circumstances.

People who work at food banks are aware they can only provide a basic emergency service. What they do well – and better than many statutory services – is offer a welcome and a listening ear, treating people who arrive at their doors filled with shame and embarrassment as human beings rather than with hostility and suspicion.

In some cases they offer a little extra – toiletries or second-hand clothes, for example. Several food banks appreciate links with advice or housing services and feel pleased when they can refer a person on for extra help, although there’s no way of knowing what happens as a result because they aren’t in a position to keep records.

We asked food bank workers whether they thought food banks would always be needed. None of them could imagine the pressures they face now receding. And while we heard many stories of public generosity in collecting and donating food, food banks face other costs: premises where they can store and distribute donations, and, increasingly, workers to coordinate and manage operations that have become too large to depend on volunteers.

While there have been some public clashes between the government and food banks, by and large the government has been happy to let food banks cushion the worst effects of austerity.

But how long can that continue? The advice services that are a crucial link in the chain are themselves under pressure as more and more people struggle with household bills. Housing organisations will have to make £1.4 billion of savings, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to meet new rules on rents. Local government is bracing itself for further cuts as George Osborne demands even greater reductions in public services – the services the most vulnerable people in society depend on.

There is little prospect of any easing up of the regime of benefit sanctions, even though the government’s own advisers and a parliamentary committee have said they aren’t working and are disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable. Cuts in housing benefit mean that tenants will continue to eat into their household budgets in order to pay the rent.

And for those in work, the most recent Budget – despite its branding of a slightly higher minimum wage as a ‘living wage’ – will actually take money away from employed people on low incomes. To see how dramatic the effects will be, take a look at Andrew Hood’s analysis for the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

This leaves food banks, which have bent over backwards to stay out of political arguments, in a difficult – and potentially impossible – position. As one person attending the launch of our report last week commented, food banks may need to completely rethink their model if they are going to be the default method of dealing with long term crisis and insecurity. No wonder Mhairi Black, in her much-viewed parliamentary speech, described them as a sign that the welfare system is failing.

  • You can download the full report, Between a rock and a hard place? here.