How Britain became a food bank nation

Illustration: Guardian Design

In Leeds, a child fails to turn up at school because she and her mother are sharing her family’s one and only pair of shoes. In Liverpool, one of two brothers turns up for football training each week because they are sharing the one pair of football boots the family can afford.

In Swansea, a girl is bullied at school by her classmates because she has no trainers at all. In Wigan town centre, another teenage schoolgirl is found walking alone on a Saturday afternoon wearing her school uniform and explains that these hand-me-down garments given to her by a teacher are the only clothes she has.

These tales of poverty, told to me while travelling around Britain, are just the tip of the iceberg. The far more severe suffering of 3 million children at the sharpest end of our poverty emergency is unseen and unreported, often hidden even from neighbours and friends. These children start the day going to school hungry, regularly miss out on meals and, teachers report, are exhausted and unable to study for lack of nutrition.

Most of them do not have the luxury of school breakfast clubs. Even the inspirational charity Magic Breakfast, which serves 30m breakfasts a year to 200,000 children, has been forced to reduce its service owing to shortages of supplies. One-quarter of state school pupils in England now qualify for free school meals, a record number, but at least 800,000 more schoolchildren who are living in poverty go hungry because they are not eligible. This summer’s school holidays are nearly upon us and, as the Food Foundation and Marcus Rashford’s campaign highlight, there are too few out-of-term lunch clubs.

These are austerity’s children – millions of boys and girls living through what is for them the “hungry 20s” in food bank Britain.

There are 850 cinemas in Britain today and three times as many food banks. There are 1,200 hospitals and twice as many food banks. There are more food banks than there are public libraries.

Graphic of food parcel distributions by food banks in the Trussell Trust network in the UK

The food bank has become such a fixture in our national life that we have almost forgotten that food banks barely existed until very recently. A mere 35 were provided by the Trussell Trust in 2010 and they had to increase twentyfold to 650 in 2013 and then double again to 1,300 in 2019. With the addition of independent food banks, today’s 2,800 food banks and emergency food suppliers are now as recognisable a feature of the British landscape as the local secondary school. Food banks are opening as fast as high street banks have been closing down.

Their existence is of course a testimony to the human decency and heroic endeavours of thousands of fellow citizens who feel the pain of others and believe in something bigger than themselves. But the fact that food banks have had to come into existence in one of the richest countries in the world is a scar on our collective conscience and a permanent stain on our country’s character.

And in 2024, even though the pandemic is over and the worst of the heating bills crisis is behind us, the food crisis is actually getting worse. There are three reasons for this, and all three can be laid at the door of this government.

First, universal credit is simply too low for people to be able to afford the essentials of food, basic toiletries and heating bills. One-off cost of living payments offered occasional, brief respite over the last couple of years but have now ended with nothing to replace them. All emergency payments ran out in March.

Second, the £1bn household support fund, which pays for most local crisis services in England and is the last line of defence against destitution, is being run down, ending in October. Vital cash grants to help people with unexpected costs, funding for preventive advice and support services that can make the difference between just struggling to get by and utter destitution, are set to disappear, making a mockery of government boasts that things are getting better.

Third, for some years to come, thousands more families will be pushed on to universal credit and face deductions for loans they have to take out to cover their first five weeks on the new benefit.

Chart showing the number of children and adults living in households that are food insecure

What makes things worse is that the food banks and other charities that have had to take over from the welfare state as a safety net for the poorest citizens are themselves running short of money. Charities may soon have to cut back on helping the hungry so they can save the starving, for they are facing a cost of giving crisis. Many donors to food banks who have little themselves, but have generously given to help those who have nothing, are now finding they have nothing more to give.

A few weeks ago I witnessed at first hand this escalation of the food crisis in our communities. A decade ago I had spoken at a church hall meeting when my local food bank started up. Now, because of a shortage of funds, it is having to close one of its many satellite hubs, which had been serving a population of nearly 10,000 people in a set of nearby villages. The volunteers at that hub are setting up their own independent food bank in order to continue feeding more than 50 families every week.

So at one and the same time existing food banks are running out of food and more food banks – as demand grows locally – are urgently needed. As official government statistics issued a few weeks ago demonstrate, 7.2 million of our fellow citizens suffer from food insecurity, an increase of 2.5 million people since 2022. If you focus on those who face “very low food security”, the near destitute, need is up by 68% – 1.5 million more hungry people in just one year.

And there is a good reason why. Over three years, overall prices are up 20% and food prices are up 30%, but until this April benefit rates had gone up by only 13.5%. So even with this year’s uprating of 6.7%, benefits lag behind need, and ONS data shows that the most basic nutritional goods –sliced white bread and semi-skimmed milk – are up even more, by 35% and 49% respectively.

And paying the increased bills for food has to be set against rising rents, sky-high energy bills, and increased internet charges if kids are to do their homework and parents are to look for jobs and escape being sanctioned by the DWP for failing to update their online journals.

For 14 years since 2010, successive prime ministers have not listened when anti-poverty campaigners have said hunger is a bigger problem than at any time in the last 50 years. Changes that include the two-child rule and the benefits cap and housing benefit limit have, in a manner unknown since the days of the poor law, broken the link between the number of mouths a family has to feed and the income it receives.

The absence of any formal link between the level at which benefits are set and the actual cost of essentials enabled their real value to hit a 40-year low just as inflation hit a 40-year high. And so overwhelming is the need that food banks have now not just spawned a network of community pantries, larders and kitchens but they have also inspired the creation of clothes banks, toiletries banks, bedding banks, baby banks and even heating banks.

The latest innovation, one in which I have been involved, is the “multibank”, which takes a holistic view of the needs of a family and provides all these goods through social workers, teachers and health visitors from one all-purpose warehouse.

For worsening poverty is causing not only hunger but ill health and squalor. Mothers find that after skimping and scraping to feed hungry bodies, they cannot afford to buy basic toiletries to keep austerity’s children clean. According to The Hygiene Bank, 3 million people are experiencing hygiene poverty. Instead of soap becoming more available at a decent price, families are paying 13% more for liquid soap than they did a year ago. Children coming to school unwashed and without clean clothes is often the first public sign that a family is in crisis. That is why many food banks are now providing toilet rolls, nappies, toothpaste, soap and shampoo.

Go to a primary school like the one I know of in Merseyside and you will find a teacher using her own money to hand out toilet rolls every Friday to each member of the class. She gives them out to every pupil to avoid any stigmatisation of the poorest kids. Now dozens of schools have installed launderettes to wash pupils’ clothes, and soon school launderettes could become as common as food banks.

Not only are today’s poorer children smaller in size than the generation before them but with the number of tooth extractions among poor children three and a half times that of those living in the most affluent communities, dental decay has become the most common reason for hospital admission in children aged between five and nine.

Food banks are today rightly lauded as national treasures. Ministers praise their work – but completely miss the point. Food banks exist not because food bank volunteers want them to be a permanent fixture of our national life but because our welfare state safety net is so full of holes that charities have had to step in.

Food banks do not want to spend the next few decades papering over the cracks in our welfare system. Inspired by the Trussell Trust chief executive, Emma Revie, they want to do themselves out of business, and that is why they are consistently calling on governments to do more.

Seventy per cent of poor children are in working families, and instead of the indignity of breadwinners having to beg for bread, food banks want their users to enjoy the dignity of well-paid work.

Among our politicians there are still some neoliberals who wish to shrink the welfare state into nothing and let food banks pick up the slack. But for the sake of our children we need to reassemble our social security safety net, bring the era of food banks to an end – and shield every child from hunger, squalor and poverty.

The Guardian

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