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Opinion

National Food Bank Day: ‘Our greatest wish is for our help not to be needed’

Sabine Goodwin from the Independent Food Aid Network details the growing crisis among food banks who are struggling to get by themselves.

When I heard about plans for this week’s National Food Bank Day, happening just as our country’s poverty crisis reaches new depths, my immediate thought was one of despair. Food bank teams have worked tirelessly to support growing numbers of people faced with hunger in their communities, but their greatest wish is for their help not to be needed. And despite the best efforts of countless campaigners to ensure raising income is the first response to food poverty, the normalisation of food banks in the UK feels closer than ever.

But is it? Can we be hopeful that, as poverty-induced catastrophe unfolds in our midst, some much needed long-term changes to our social security system and work practices will finally come?

National Food Bank Day was initiated by “the world’s first food bank” based in Phoenix, Arizona. Reaching its 55th anniversary of “filling hungry stomachs”, and supporting 150,000 families in August of this year, it’s clear that the St Mary’s Food Bank’s mission “to end hunger in Arizona” is not imminent in its completion. Nor is ending hunger in the rest of the USA. Feeding America, the food bank and food pantry network set up in the late 1970s, currently supports one in seven Americans.

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The scale of the hunger industry in the USA, or what’s been dubbed the “hunger industrial complex”, puts the millions of food parcels distributed each year in the UK into perspective. Nevertheless, our society’s descent into food poverty acquiescence over the last 12 years is plain to see.

Times have been changing, however. The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), alongside the Trussell Trust and many other anti-poverty charities, has been calling for years for cash first or income-based solutions to reduce food insecurity. Ensuring that social security payments, wages and job security correlate with the cost of living are top of the list.

The government has taken a bold step in this direction before, of course. At the start of the pandemic, it introduced a clear, cash-first measure to help people, increasing universal credit by £20 a week. The removal of that money, as of October 2021, has been devastating to millions of households, particularly as the cost of living crisis escalates.

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The Department for Work and Pension’s own evidence demonstrates that increasing people’s income works. It’s hardly rocket science, but making sure people’s incomes keep pace with their costs helps them put food on the table. The DWP Family Resources Survey saw a 16 per cent drop in food insecurity in households on universal credit in the year following the £20 weekly increase. Households on legacy benefits which did not benefit from the uplift saw no improvement in food security.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government has committed to a cash-first approach and the publication of its plan to end the need for food bank is imminent. Outlining a strategy to reduce poverty and food insecurity couldn’t be more urgent.

Across more than 80 local authorities in Scotland, England and Wales, IFAN has worked with local authorities and other local groups to co-produce cash-first referral leaflets. They’re designed to help people in need and support workers find ways to maximise their income and reduce the need for charitable food aid. Local stakeholders are united in their commitment to reduce food insecurity in their communities however they can, despite the weaknesses in the country’s low wages, employment conditions and social security system.

Still, the fragility of charitable food aid provision is becoming more obvious than ever. Inflation and energy costs are hitting grassroots, independent providers as well as food banks with corporate support. Our latest survey found 87 per cent of contributing IFAN organisations had been impacted by supply issues since April 2022. One in five have needed to reduce the size of their food parcels. Operational costs are increasing while food aid charities have been forced to dip into reserves. Our member organisations are desperately worried about what will happen next.

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As Ian Campbell of Kirkcaldy Foodbank in Fife put it: “This situation is completely unsustainable, and we have begun to take steps to limit the support that we can provide. We have real fears about what lies ahead – both for the people who need our help and for our ability to meet those increased needs.”

People working in the charitable food aid sector are doing what they can to make sure their voices are heard. IFAN has teamed up with the Trussell Trust and Feeding Britain to circulate a letter that will be sent to our next prime minister. The message is clear – charitable food aid is not the solution to financial hardship. Food banks, social supermarkets, food pantries, soup kitchens and community kitchens want to see an end to the need for their services.

Food aid workers and volunteers are caught in an impossible, paradoxical position and they’re exhausted, overstretched, and demoralised in the face of rising demand with no end in sight. They can’t go on strike as people would go hungry but they’re resisting the normalisation of charitable food aid in the UK nonetheless. Momentum is building.

As the stark reality of escalating poverty grows more obvious every day, the inevitable is happening. Food aid providers are running out of road. And what’s more, the people struggling to keep this critical support going are the ones driving change upstream.

However incredible and heartening the efforts of volunteers to stave off hunger in our communities are, the ultimate goal means National Food Bank Day will have taken its place in history books, never to return.

Sabine Goodwin is coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network

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