While the overzealous stockpiling of toilet rolls was a curious factor during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus also laid bare the fragility of the just-in-time model of supermarket food supply. Perhaps less obvious was the way that it tore into the just-in-time food supply of those at the sharp end of British inequality.
The number of households with children going hungry has doubled since lockdown began. Recent data from the Food Foundation show that almost a fifth of households with children have been unable to access enough food in the past five weeks as they face up to the combined brutality of loss of income, isolation and hunger. The food foundation suggested that only 136,000 of the 621,000 children accessing breakfast club pre-pandemic are now receiving an alternative.
But hunger in the UK is not new. Pre-pandemic, 4.7 million people lived in severely food-insecure homes. Now, during the pandemic, this food insecurity has been amplified by serious problems with the performance of Edenred, the company given the contract to feed more than a million pupils eligible for free school meals. This has left many children going hungry and parents humiliated.
Foodbanks, often provided through Trussell Trust, have provided a huge service to society by stepping in to the void where the welfare state used to be. Referred clients are identified and issued with a food bank voucher for a parcel of three days’ nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food. The Trussell Trust reported an 81% increase in people needing support from its food banks at the end of March compared with the same period last year.
Concerned at the closure of a local community food bank service, our mutual aid group took the decision to set up an independent, self-referral temporary foodbank in East Worthing. Within three weeks we were delivering 60 food packages a week to around 250 local people.
One thing that struck us almost immediately was how many people warned us against spreading dependency and guarding against duplicity from the legions of people who were apparently out to scam the world of a can of baked beans or two. And while we questioned whether the well-meaning solemnity of the warnings was in keeping with what was essentially minor baked bean fraud, it did give us pause for thought as to why so many were so concerned.
After all, research shows people at food banks have extremely low incomes, with average equivalised household income of just £7 per day after paying rent, and nearly all being destitute on a nationally recognised definition. This counters claims by some public figures that people at food banks can manage perfectly well financially and choose to use food banks in order to take advantage of freely available food.
There are various illusions that those who don’t live with the threat of hunger sometimes hold about those who do. Dependency, and the desire to protect against it is a peculiarly middle class fascination in the UK. Moreover, it is a fascination of both the right and left. For the right, the squalor of dependency imprisons people and allows the aspirational to be taken advantage of by the growing legions of lethargic, sky-sports watching, lager-swilling benefit scroungers. For the left, dependency is an indignity to be guarded against as no decent society should leave people perpetually lingering on the support of donated food.
But before Covid-19, more than 14 million people were struggling in poverty, or about one in five of the total UK population, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Since Covid-19, many have been placed on furlough, many have been laid off and have a long wait for Universal Credit, those who work in the black economy (estimated at between 10-15% of GDP) have seen their wages disappear and have little recourse to government funds, child maintenance payments have become more erratic and so on. People will go hungry with or without the help of food banks.
The welfare state had been so fundamentally battered and debased that the luxury of guarding against dependency has vanished. Too many people still labour under worn-out, antiquated ideas of what the welfare state is and how it functions. And for a good reason. These fallacies about a ‘just world’ allow the horror of permanent hunger, and its attendant liberal guilt, to be pushed to the back of our minds. But they don’t help the increasing numbers of people who are now firmly entrenched in precarious food security that the welfare state and supporting advice agencies are too often unable to ameliorate.
Without significant action, the hungry will mostly continue to be hungry, whether we decide to acknowledge this or not. Our welfare state no longer gives us the luxury of entertaining myths about the indignity of dependency.
Moreover, as a new food bank we felt the current situation was not a time to be questioning why people were hungry. We knew that they there are a lot of hidden hungry out there and the fewer barriers you put to them accessing food, the more you will find them. And find them we did. Scraping by, not feeding properly, skipping meals, and some just plain hungry. We know it takes time for people to be processed through a system, often using agencies who are now short staffed. Many don’t start to apply until they are desperate. A few days waiting is a few too many for hungry children, so we resolved to treat all initial enquiries as a potential emergency.
There is an inherent mistrust and suspicion in any referral process for food (however useful they can be to find other forms of support for people). We needed to acknowledge the shame in reaching out for help with hunger. Studies by food poverty researchers over many years have shown the damage to people’s dignity that using food banks causes. We had numerous people contact us to ask if their particular financial situation meant that they qualified for support with us. Our answer was always that if they needed food, then they qualified. Food poverty strips you of your dignity in a society that fetishises self-reliance. To reach out is a profoundly crushing experience and the care you mobilise in that first encounter, the way that you reach out to people, is fundamentally important.
Our previous experience of running community organisations, supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society left us with a clear understanding that setting the conditions for dignified encounters is fundamental.For us, ensuring proportionality and appropriateness of response meant sacrificing a capacity to prevent baked bean fraud at the altar of human dignity.
The reality is that, like the US, it is too late to halt the entrenchment of food charity in the UK. Austerity policies, combined with low wages, precarious work and the appeal of community-based charity have ensured this. But admitting that we have failed, and that our nostalgically simple ideas of fixing it via signposting need not leave us despondent. Instead it needs to be a spur to communities organising. There are many social innovations in food security taking off all over the UK and they are providing huge support and relief to desperate people.
Like Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, we know there now needs to be a national emergency income support scheme. We need the creation of a Minister for Household Food Security to coordinate the policy response to food poverty across government departments. The Minister must ensure the government fulfils the Right to Food enshrined in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Every Council in England should now be funded to develop a Food Poverty Action Plan.
Food poverty is a public health emergency that requires an urgent, targeted response from government. Only then can we have the luxury of ruminating over whether food banks have become a defacto enabler of the UK’s crumbling welfare system.
About the authors: After working in Further and Higher Education as a lecturer, director and consultant, Paul Eustice is semi-retired to freelance writing and editing then fully retired to community action.; Matthew Potter (@MattPott) works in community action with a particular interest in food projects and substance abuse; Caroline Baxter (@Caroline4Selden) is a community organiser and campaigner with a particular interest in sustainable food projects.