Millions are at risk of hunger – ministers must acknowledge the scale of the crisis

We must imagine a future without food banks.

We must imagine a future without food banks

There is enough food to go around in Britain. This appears to be the one point on which everyone can agree. How to address the hunger that exists in Britain, and the rise of food banks, despite this and despite rising national income, is more contested.

This morning saw the publication of Feeding Britain: A strategy for zero hunger in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, following an all-party parliamentary inquiry in to food poverty in Britain led by Rt Hon Frank Field MP and the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro.

The report focusses on the rise of food banks and associated provision of emergency food assistance which it describes as ‘voluntary welfare’.

Feeding Britain has 77 broad ranging recommendations on how to tackle the continuing and growing crisis. These include making it easier to redistribute surplus food, addressing low pay to eliminating hunger in schools and school holidays as well as tackling the higher costs borne by the poor for basic needs including utilities.

Over thirty of the recommendations relate to systemic or cultural issues with the way welfare is delivered currently.

From delays and errors to heavy-handed issuing of sanctions and a lack of knowledge among claimants about discretionary support, the report is clear that the current system is a major part of the problem. It recommends a move from the ‘Claimant Commitment’, where the onus of duty is on the claimant, to a ‘genuine two way contract between claimants and Jobcentre Plus’.

At the heart of the matter is the question of values and the type of country we want to be. Do we want a welfare safety net that is still intact? Are we content to see social security, and the interdependence it represents, eroded so that increasing numbers of people cannot cover the basic expenditures of food, housing and utilities? Or do we want a future where people, including many in work on low pay, are not reliant on charity to get by?

The focus on welfare in Feeding Britain echoes other reports, including Emergency use only: Understanding and reducing the use of foodbanks in the UK published by the Trussell Trust and written in conjunction with the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and Oxfam. A large part of the research for Emergency use only came from the Tower Hamlets Foodbank which combines a range of advice services intended to help foodbank clients out of hunger.

Tower Hamlets represents the type of ‘Foodbank Plus’ Feeding Britain advocates. However, although food banks that have advice services are a better model than those that don’t, they still represent an informal welfare provision that relies on charity. Saying this is not in itself a criticism of the volunteers and organisations who seeing hunger on their doorstep have shown humanity and stepped in to bridge the gap.

On Comment is Free, Graham Riches, a British born Canadian based academic, warns against institutionalising food banks and argues for a rights based approach to hunger. He is writing from the perspective of North America where foodbanks have become so embedded in formal provision of welfare that it is no longer possible to envisage eliminating the need for them.

The authors have stated that Feeding Britain will not be about state-funded foodbanks. However, the terms of reference of any organisation that emerges as a result of this inquiry must make it clear that this is the case. There must a defined end point for the process of eliminating hunger.

This is absent from the report possibly due to the constraints of cross party working. Feeding Britain has to be about the goal of Zero Hunger as articulated by the report’s title and as adopted for London by Boris Johnson following an investigation I led in 2013 for the London Assembly on food poverty in London. We also need action, something the Mayor is weaker on than words.

The focus in Feeding Britain on involving government is in stark contrast to the lack of willingness by the coalition to take responsibility for the rise in food banks. We cannot end hunger without political will – the voluntary sector cannot do this alone. Government needs not only to have a place at the table but to actively engage with the problem in order to eliminate hunger and the causes of food poverty effectively.

To do this, ministers need to acknowledge the scale of the crisis – with millions at risk of hunger – and their own part in causing and role in addressing it.

The report refers to calls to eliminate food banks as ‘grandstanding’. However, we need (I need) to be able to imagine a future in which we have eliminated the need for food banks. Labour’s manifesto should articulate a values-based vision in which we set clear goals to achieve this.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour London Assembly member. Follow her on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.