The growth of food banks: a crisis made in Downing Street

Are more people really using food banks because of a greater awareness of them?

The latest figures from the Trussell Trust on the number of people using emergency food banks make for depressing reading.

Half a million people received three days emergency food assistance from a Trussell Trust foodbank between April and December 2013, according to the organisation’s latest figures. This is more than the number assisted in the entire 2012-13 financial year (346,992). One third of these were also children.

The issue of food banks has risen up the political agenda to such an extent that MPs will dedicate a debate to the subject in the House of Commons this Wednesday.

Some on the Right have put the growth in the number of people using food banks down to their proliferation – there are more food banks open so more people are visiting them as a source of free food. As Robin Aitkin writes for the Telegraph:

To put it another way, a new service is being offered to more and more communities – and, naturally, people are using it. What is more, the sustained media interest in food banks has acted as a kind of giant pro bono advertising campaign; suddenly everybody knows about them.

Others have also attempted to portray the growth in food banks as a positive in itself; an example of the ‘big society’ in action: communities giving vulnerable people the support they need rather than those people relying on the hated state.

So are more people really using food banks simply because there are more of them and a greater awareness of them? Or, more satisfyingly, are people visiting food banks out of an opportunist desire to collect ‘free food’?

Both premises seem extremely unlikely. Firstly because there is no evidence supporting them – they are prejudices more than anything: the poor are on the take etc – but there is also a great deal of evidence pointing to the more obvious cause of greater food bank use: a surge in hardship caused by coalition policies.

Figures from the Trussell Trust (see page 13) show that changes to the benefit system were actually the most common cause of people using food banks. Nearly a third of food parcel recipients had been referred to the Trust after their social security benefits have been delayed and a further 15 per cent visited a food bank as a result of their benefits being cut or stopped (a rise from 11 per cent in 2011–12).

Not exactly scroungers seeking out a free meal, but rather people with no means left with which to purchase food.

Blaming the rise in the number of people using food banks on the attractiveness of food banks is also incredibly myopic when one considers just how fast the price of food has been rising in recent years. According to consumer group Which?, over the last six years food prices have risen over and above general inflation by 12.6 per cent, and nearly half (45 per cent) of consumers are spending a larger proportion of their available income on food than they did 12 months ago.

Most worryingly of all perhaps, three in 10 (29 per cent) now say they are struggling to feed themselves or their family because of the cost. These are exactly the sorts of people who are likely to seek out a food bank.

More people may be aware of the existance of food banks, but more people really do need them – the combination of draconian welfare reforms and rapidly falling living standards mean that more people are spending at least day each week with no money, and therefore nothing to eat.

It is unsurprising that there are people on the Right who are blaming the increase in the number of food banks on ‘scroungers’ looking for free food, but this is a crisis that was made in Downing Street.

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