Food banks - a radical plan

The Trussell Trusts Foodbank 8 in Vauxhall, South London. Photo: Newfrontiers via
The Trussell Trusts Foodbank 8 in Vauxhall, South London. Photo: Newfrontiers via
The growth of food banks reflects a simple truth: the government does not care about hungry families, writes Rupert Read. To tackle hunger, work must pay a living wage, social security must do its job, and communities must rebuild local food networks.
Behind the rhetoric of 'the big society' and 'we're all in it together', Cameron is a true political son of Mrs Thatcher, who so memorably said: 'there's no such thing as society.'

I've just co-authored a report about 'Hunger in the East of England'. Yep, that's right: hunger. In our 'civilised' country.

The report is based on research carried by the Eastern Region Green Party in co-operation with the Trussell Trust, and shows a dramatic rise in the use of and numbers of foodbanks in the east of England. Not that the east is atypical in this regard - this is a national problem).

'Welfare reform' and hungry families

The report reveals:

  • There are now 39 food banks in the East operated by the Trussell Trust, plus a further 16 non-Trussell food banks.
  • The growth of Food Banks is linked to 'welfare reform' and to rising food prices.
  • In the East, there are 33,622 people who are affected by the Bedroom Tax, and 1,759 by the Housing Benefit cap. 
  • Of the 690,410 families who receive child benefit and are therefore affected by its capping, 104,000 have three or more children to support.
  • Benefits sanctions have been issued in the East against 61,797 claimants between October 2012 and September 2013 under the new regime, compared to just under 19,080 for the region in the whole of 2008. 
  • Food-bank manager report a striking correlation between the new more punitive regime of benefit sanctions and need for food banks.
  • The average cost of welfare reform to a household has been estimated at £1,615 a year, or £31 a week.
  • A survey by Which? magazine in September found that 29% of people were struggling to buy enough food for themselves or their household. A survey in 2012 by 'Netmums' found one in five mothers regularly skip meals to provide food for their children.
  • Shockingly, the number of people in the East treated for malnutrition has risen from 209 in 2008 to 331 in 2012.

Work must pay a living wage

Hundreds of people around the country recently fasted for a day in solidarity with those dependent on foodbanks.

I was among them, and joined with them in calling on the Government to protect the poor, and especially children in poor families who are often the victims of hunger and malnutrition.

We demand that work must pay enough for people to provide for themselves and their families, and that food is sold in a way which allows people to afford a healthy diet.

And we demand a social security system that does its job of providing a robust last line of defence against hunger in this country.

The notion which the Government seems to have, that welfare recipients can mitigate the reductions they've seen in benefits payments by finding work or moving to a smaller home is true for only a very small proportion of people. It is shameful that the consequence has been that many more people in this country are facing hunger.

Behind the rhetoric of 'the big society' and 'we're all in it together', Cameron is a true political son of Mrs Thatcher, who so memorably said: 'there's no such thing as society.'

Underlying causes

But the problem is not just caused by rising food prices and falling benefits. These are rather elements in a wider financial squeeze that is affecting low income households. Other contributory causes of the crisis include:

  • the very high costs of housing that take a large percentage of income for many families;
  • incomes that have declined or failed to increase (except for the rich);
  • rising energy costs, thanks to the Big Six oligopoly, and with our fossil economy facing ever-growing resource pressure);
  • rising transport costs forced upon us by privatised trains and buses often operating monopolies;
  • the monstrous interest rates that are charged to people resorting to 'payday loan' companies, often to meet the cost of necessities.

One part of the longer-term answer that we as Greens think particularly important is to enable people to regain control over at least some of their own food needs.

Wouldn't it be great if communities had access to affordable and sustainable food, grown locally and if they could provide some of their own food ...

Communities must reclaim 'food sovereignty'

For Greens the rise in use of food banks is a symptom of an socio-economic system that categorically fails to meet the needs of ordinary people. We need radical solutions to fix our society...:

Short term:

  • Making sure emergency food aid organisations work together to be most effective
  • Ensuring that benefits are set at levels which allow people to live in dignity
  • Administering benefits better so there are not delays to payments
  • Tackling hunger in school holidays when free school meals are not available

Short to Medium term:

  • Making work pay by ensuring the Minimum Wage is a Living Wage.
  • Investing in job creation, especially for young people.
  • Ensuring wage ratios (between high and low earners) are narrowed.
  • Tackling the high cost of utilities such as housing, energy, and water
  • Making allotments more available, especially to the poor; creating more edible garden schemes
  • Local authority support and Government support for Community Supported Agriculture schemes
  • Supporting organisations such as 'Foodcycle' and 'social supermarkets'
  • Update the welfare system in a fair way to ensure that any inefficiencies are not used as an excuse for further attacks on the poor.

Medium to Long-term:

  • Ending the corporate stranglehold over the unsustainable 'runaway food system' we currently have;
  • Tackling global food insecurity
  • Bring utilities such as electricity, water, and railways back into public ownership.
  • Reforming the 'welfare' system radically to provide a Citizens' Income
  • Enable those who wish to live off the land, as smallholders; enabling a larger percentage of the population to provision themselves.

Its called 'social security' for a reason

The welfare system should be there to provide security for everyone, so that we can all be sure that sudden unemployment or ill-health will not drive us into poverty. That can happen to anyone, not simply those thought of as 'the poor'.

Food banks have shown society's commitment to help those in need. It is, in fact, 'the big society' in action. I refer here to David Cameron's big idea that convinced no one - perhaps because he used it as cover for his brutal attacks on Britain's voluntary sector.

It is to their great shame that the present Government does not appear to share society's commitment to social justice, ending hunger, and giving children a fair start in life.

But that's because, behind the rhetoric of "the big society" and "we're all in it together", Cameron is a true political son of Mrs Thatcher - who so memorably said: "there's no such thing as society." 

Rupert Read
 is Green Party Transport Spokesperson, and lead MEP-candidate for the East of England at this year's European Elections. Website: Twitter: @GreenRupertRead (political) or @RupertRead (personal).

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