How can we reduce the need for food banks?
“Why is it that in countries that have welfare states offering a minimum income has hunger reappeared?” asks ‘Feeding Britain,' the final report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty published this week.
Amongst its recommendations were better education about nutrition, attempts to improve wages and reduce living costs, and a new national network of food assistance schemes - such as food banks - called ‘Feeding Britain’.
You’d be hard pressed to find many people arguing that food banks are not a vital service to the public at this moment in time, nor would many argue against cross-sector collaboration. However, you also wouldn’t find many who argue that they are a long term solution. Professor Graham Riches, for example, pointed out yesterday that Canada has a system of nationally institutionalised food banks, but there is no evidence that food charity is an effective response to reducing food poverty - particularly in the long term.
Celebrating food banks?
Elsewhere it has been suggested that food banks are “one of the greatest success stories of the voluntary sector in the past few years” and that, actually, “the poorest people in any decade have always gone hungry, regardless of which party was in power.”
This misses the point for two reasons. Firstly, whilst meeting emergency need should be lauded it is absurd to suggest that the proliferation of such crisis support is cause for celebration. As Community Links has argued, it would be better if charities that focus on alleviating crisis didn’t need to exist. A measure of success for food banks should not just be the amelioration of hunger, but its abolition. Yesterday’s report should therefore be lauded for suggesting that we need to end hunger and for correctly identifying some of the underlying causes - stagnating wages, the rising cost of living, and welfare reform. However, it focusses far too much on food assistance programmes rather than hunger prevention strategies.
Secondly, to suggest that the poorest have always gone hungry and therefore always will is a self-defeating argument. Not only does it condemn an increasingly large part of the population to hunger, but once again it suggests that it is a problem that we must react to rather than proactively prevent.
Hunger is largely a result of poverty. Recent research argued that people are often forced to rely on food banks following crises that were out of their control; for example bereavement, the loss of employment, or benefit payment delays and reductions. Some of these crises are unavoidable - we will experience bereavement at some point in our lives - but others could be prevented.
However, it is hard to prevent crisis when people feel financially insecure and personally undermined. Last week Community Links and the Early Action Task Force published two reports. The first - Just About Surviving - is the most recent report from our longitudinal research project looking at the cumulative impact of welfare reform on residents of Newham, East London. It highlights increasing levels of insecurity amongst individuals and families affected by welfare reform, one result of which is hunger.
Take Diana, for example, who cannot work because of her multiple health problems. The cumulative impact of three reforms - the Bedroom Tax, Council Tax Localisation, and ESA re-assessment - have drastically reduced her income and left her hungry:
“I’m diabetic so I am supposed to eat three times a day which I can’t afford to do. I was supposed to take my medication with meals but I couldn’t do that… So my son was coming at about 9 o’clock with chicken and chips from up the road - just £2 for those - and I ended up in hospital… it was total hell.”
We did not explicitly ask recipients about food banks, but Diana’s story highlights the endemic levels of hunger seen across the country for those in poverty.
We therefore need to shift the discussion beyond the narrow parameters of whether or not we need food banks towards a debate about poverty; its root causes, effects and, ultimately, long term solutions. And as Julia Unwin of JRF pointed out last year, poverty is far from inevitable.
Secure and Ready: Acting Earlier for Social Security
So how could we promote security and reduce poverty? What kind of system would need to be in place to ensure that individuals, families, and communities feel secure and ready to seize opportunities and thrive?
In our second report, Secure and Ready, we aimed at answering these questions. We argue that the social security system should have two primary functions: firstly, it should enable us to be ready to deal with setbacks. This would be premised on new and revitalised underlying principles including a presumption of willingness, recognition of the value of relationships, and valuing other forms of contribution. Secondly the social security system should enable us to seize opportunities. Seeing social security spend as investment in individuals and communities is fundamental to this - whether in housing, education, or public health.
Standing in the way of these changes are spending rule barriers such as the welfare cap, siloed working practices, and short-term planning horizons. Let’s take the welfare cap as a quick example: in its current form it operates on a short-term, annual basis, and as such discourages upfront investment to improve outcomes outside of the remit of DWP and therefore also reduce costs. Instead it encourages cuts to individual entitlements, exacerbating problems such as hunger and the need for food banks whilst also pushing up expenditure. If the cap is to continue it should be reformed, allowing investment that would improve social outcomes and reduce expenditure.
Such shifts in how the social security system works would facilitate a reduction in demand for crisis oriented services such as food banks. Whilst hunger still exists they are a necessity, but it would be a great success to no longer need them in ten years’ time.