Britain faces a hidden hunger epidemic. At least half a million people used a Trussell Trust Foodbank last year, with numbers continuing to rise. Ben Clarke speaks to Joy Dunne, manager of Exeter Foodbank, to find out how this happened and what can be done.
“We had a gentleman, 92 years old, a World War Two veteran from the Navy, he said that he never imagined to be in this sort of situation.” Joy Dunne, the manager of Exeter Foodbank, is recalling just one of the stories behind the 4,871 food parcels delivered by the Exeter charity last year. “He had an unexpected bill and had to use his food budget to pay for it. So he went to Age UK and they gave him a Foodbank voucher. I then asked if he needed any loo paper. His eyes filled up with tears and he said he hadn’t had any toilet roll for four days.”
The unnamed war veteran is just one of a million people in Britain who have reached “crisis point,” something the Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest Foodbank charity, defines as having “little or no food, and little or no money with which to buy food.” Individuals and families beset by “crisis” must be referred by an external agency to use a Foodbank’s services. Underfed and with nowhere else to turn, the poorest in society now rely on food parcels donated by the general public to provide temporary relief from hunger. But restrictions on voucher referrals mean pangs can quickly return. “Each parcel provides three days’ worth of emergency food: three breakfasts, lunches and dinners,” Joy explains. “The intention is that we are putting in the crisis intervention while the referring agency is putting long-term help in place. A person can have up to three vouchers, but we don’t limit that to someone in a continuing crisis.”
The Exeter Foodbank, Joy continues, has “supported two ladies for significantly longer. One lady, Aisha*, was a Middle Eastern refugee. “Until you’re recognised as a refugee you don’t have a right to anything and receive no money, let alone any for food. She arrived with nothing except a six-year-old son. She was waiting for her Home Office appointment and was then refused asylum after waiting a year.”
Currently moneyless, with a young child to care for, Aisha’s plight is another sad story in a national narrative of destitution now epic in scale and scope.
If Aisha’s story makes for grim reading then the nationwide statistics on Foodbank use are equally hard to swallow. Last year, 330,205 children in the UK were fed from food parcels – a threefold increase on the previous year. Over 500 Trussell Trust Foodbanks have been launched since 2000 to meet this escalating demand. Five years ago the Exeter Foodbank fed on average 12 people per week; that figure now stands at 93, with numbers across the country continuing to rise faster than you can say “breadline poverty.” If we’ve all had to tighten our belts due to the government’s intransigent commitment to austerity, then it seems that the lowest earners have had to quite literally fasten theirs by an extra notch or two.
How has Britain, on of the wealthiest countries in the world, ended up with a national hunger epidemic?
Mounting household bills and rising food prices are partly to blame. The amount households are spending on food, for example, has fallen by 3.9% since 2010 despite escalating costs. In short, we now buy less food for more money. But all these reasons are by no means the strongest ingredients in this recipe for hunger. Instead, problems with the benefit system bite hardest and longest. Indeed, over 50% of referrals to the Exeter Foodbank last year were connected to problems with social security benefit payments. Nationally, delays in benefit payment accounted for 36% of referrals, while benefit sanctions accounted for 15% – just in case you thought those on welfare didn’t already have enough on their plates.
Make no mistake: benefit sanctions do not “sanction” anything; instead, they dock and stop social security payments. Almost two million people have had their benefits stopped through the sanctions regime over the past two years, mainly for breaches of benefit conditions such as missing appointments or failing to carry out enough job searches. To sweeten the deal, already vulnerable recipients are forced to plug sanction-sized financial holes with expensive credit, trapping them in an interminable cycle of debt that demoralizes just as much as it degrades. It’s no coincidence that low income and debt accounted for over 24% of Foodbank referrals last year.
With such threadbare governmental provision, the third sector is forced to step in and perform a neoliberal brand of corporate social responsibility. Without the compassionate efforts of tireless volunteers and public donations, many people would almost certainly find it even harder to put food on the table for their families. Amid this picture of destitution, political parties continue to point the finger at each other in juvenile attempts to find out who caused the crisis. But whatever colour you align with on the political spectrum, it’s hard to deny that Britain currently faces a hunger epidemic – an issue less about politics than human rights. As the shouts in parliament increase in volume, the Foodbank queues up and down the country only increase in length.
And the psychological impacts of continued Foodbank attendance can be, in Joy’s words, “completely devastating.” Asked to associate words with the impacts Foodbanks can have on users, Joy is quick to respond: “Shame, embarrassment, fear, intimidation, panic, mental and physical ill health” are just some of the words she lists. But the reasons for Foodbank referral, Joy suggests, can demoralize and distress more than actual attendance: “the reasons make you feel like you’ve got no value. If you’re coming to the Foodbank because you’re out of work, then people’s perception is that you’ve failed. You feel a failure because you can’t get a job. If you’ve been made redundant you feel like you’ve got nothing to offer.”
Destitute, devalued and starved of the skills needed to remedy their predicament, the truly vulnerable are trapped in an insatiable system intent on chipping away at their dignity, leaving little more than crumbs of despair and shredded self-esteem.
Hence the Trussell Trust Foodbank’s motto: “Revive Dignity and Restore Hope.” “When users come to us having been assessed, we have no judgment to make – we want to welcome them and accept them,” Joy explains. “They’re all given three days’ worth of food – we try to offer a choice of soup, fruit juice etc. Extra items even sometimes include spinach leaves, artichokes, caviar – all sorts of things have been donated by the Exeter public!” There’s a sensationalist Daily Mail headline lurking here: “Foodbank Scroungers Dine on Caviar.” I joke. But there remains a strange sense of denial about food poverty in this country – either through ignorance, willful neglect or damning indignation by some media outlets.
Either way, it is remains concerning how many people seem to think that there are some essential differences between those on the highest and lowest rungs of the income ladder. The complex and varying circumstances that give rise to social ills such as poverty are persistently overlooked and misrepresented. Rather than blanket the less privileged as a homogenous mass different to “us” – a naive narrative that undermines the humanity of those in need of support – it is much more worthwhile and productive to recognise similarities and connections between all social groups. Ignorance and prejudice are ultimately just symptoms of a wider malignant disease caused by a severe breakdown in social relations.
This is why Foodbanks, in my view, are such special environments. They offer an inclusive space in which people from all areas of society come into contact, foster relationships and share stories in order to help lay the foundation blocks for a road to recovery. This is not to say that Foodbanks should exist in the first place; after all, adequate government provision should preempt their creation. Nor am I saying that Foodbanks should be institutionalized. Instead, as Joy suggests, Foodbanks should continue to provide a lifeline for those most in need, “in the same way that there are emergency service stations. We’re the crisis intervention. We’re not a long-term support. The Foodbank should be there as an emergency back up rather than an everyday fixture.”
But Joy also outlines her wish for Foodbanks to deliver services that encourage independence and long-term autonomy: “We would love to offer budgeting and cooking courses, parenting classes – all the sorts of things that support a good family life. If you’re equipped with skills you find it a lot easier to manage.”
Only through following the Foodbanks’ commitment to social diversity, compassion and independence will food poverty in Britain become a thing of the past and, in the process, create a society that revives hope and restores dignity to war veterans, asylum seekers and everyone else in between.