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The food bank paradox

As many Britons go hungry, burgeoning food banks are answering the need. But are they also giving the government an excuse for tolerating poverty?
December 7, 2020

Nigel Webster can’t remember how many times he’s written “Food bank open” on a small black chalkboard on the doorstep of his community church. Every time it rains, which in his northern district of Nottingham is pretty often, the watery chalk cascades straight off, meaning that Webster or one of his volunteers needs to stop packaging emergency food parcels and re-chalk it. A few years back, a local graphic designer offered to create a large, professional placard so that people needing emergency food assistance could find their way more easily. But Webster refused. “We don’t want to be here next year,” he said. “We want folks to understand that while the need is urgent and necessary now, don’t lose sight that we’re only meant to be temporary.”

I met Webster, the manager of Bestwood and Bulwell food bank in Nottingham, on a rainy January day in 2020. When it launched in 2012, Webster imagined his pop-up food bank would shut after a few months. But by that January, Webster was feeding more people than ever before, and had all but lost hope in change: “We’re knackered, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight,” he said.

Weeks later, coronavirus arrived, and Webster was working 70-hour weeks. He was struggling with declining volunteer numbers and a dearth of hand sanitiser. But there seemed no alternative but to keep feeding the community. Back in April, the Food Foundation commissioned and analysed a large YouGov survey, and concluded that three million people had gone hungry in the early weeks of the crisis, a time when many incomes were disappearing and self-isolation and shortages were compounding the damage. 

For the first time ever, food banks were allocated direct public funds from central government, with Defra inviting any of them impacted by Covid-19 to apply for up to £100,000 in May and launching the £63m local authority emergency assistance grant for food and essential supplies in June. It took many volunteers by surprise. Food banks have never received formalised state funding; campaigners said before the crisis that this would be akin to the government admitting that its benefits aren’t enough to live on. And even after the emergency cash injection, the record-breaking surge in redundancies—up to 314,000 in the third quarter of the year—means that food banks may struggle to keep up. 

The pandemic has pushed more people into food insecurity. Campaigners say it’s highlighted how moth-eaten the social safety net is after over a decade of austerity. But it has also heralded unprecedented public attention to the issue. Campaigning from 23-year-old footballer Marcus Rashford for free meals for children during school holidays (plus a more permanent solution) has become difficult for politicians to ignore, which fits with what food bank managers have said about signs, finally, of hunger rising to the top of the national consciousness. As Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, told me: “Now food is on the political agenda.” And because the food crisis has coincided with the government intervening in the economy in unprecedented ways, politicians will now have a tough time convincing the public that nothing can be done. The question those in this part of the charity sector are asking is: will food banks continue to mushroom, or will those in power act so that they become unnecessary? 

The hunger march

Over the last dozen years, food banks—once largely unknown in the UK—have marched across the country and set up camp in every neighbourhood. Even before the virus, the number of food parcels distributed by the largest network of banks, the Trussell Trust, had increased 74 per cent in five years, to a record 1.9m parcels in the year to the end of March 2020. Meanwhile, giving to food banks has become part of what it means to be a good citizen: in 2018-19 the public gave over 15,000 tonnes of food to the same charity. Collection cages at supermarket tills have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget what a recent phenomenon they are. In 2003, just two Trussell Trust food banks were operating in Britain, and even at the depth of the financial crisis; in 2009, there were only 30. Today there are over 2,100 in total, meaning there are now more food banks than branches of Greggs, and more than three in the average parliamentary constituency. Over half of them are run by Trussell, mostly providing three-day food parcels to people who have fallen into financial hardship. 

Much of the need goes back to the austerity drive launched in earnest in 2010 involving a slew of welfare cuts. All sorts of benefits were eventually frozen for years on end, which eroded their value by breaking the link with the cost of living. George Osborne, the chancellor who drove austerity, also introduced a cap on the total amount of benefits any household could claim, irrespective of how many mouths there were to feed, and later added a two-child limit for family support, further undermining the link between support and need. Compounding the difficulties of many on benefits has been the gradual rollout of a new amalgamated benefit, Universal Credit, which was sold (and widely reported in the press) as a necessary and empowering simplification, but in practice it was beset by all sorts of difficulties. Campaigners point out that it builds in hardship by withholding the first payment for five weeks. 

But perhaps more important than anything else in driving up hunger, food bank managers say, was the ramped-up use of benefit “sanctions,” the docking of benefits for sometimes minor infractions of their conditions, such as a missed appointment. Not all the punitive rules were new. But amid stories that local officials were being set targets to sanction a certain number of people, the numbers being punished soared. Food bank volunteers were soon identifying the docking of benefits as a major reason why their fellow citizens were turning up and needing to be fed, and before long Oxford University research confirmed a “strong, dynamic relationship” between the prevalence of sanctions and the recourse to food banks across different communities. 

Putting everything together, said Clare McNeil, Associate Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), “it’s hard to escape the conclusion” that the expansion of food banks was greatly encouraged by government policy. But social security cuts are not the only driver—unreliable and insecure contracts have, for example, put a new spotlight on working poverty. Whatever the cause, there is little serious doubt that penury is widespread. The Social Metrics Commission, which is headed up by Philippa Stroud, a Conservative peer and one-time aide to the controversial former welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith, calculated in 2018 that around 14.2m people in the UK were living in poverty. 

In this context food banks became a lifeline. And they worked for the supermarkets, too. Redistributing waste food to the needy was an easy strategy to bolster both their social and eco credentials simultaneously. This corporate philanthropy—delivering a steady supply of stock, often surplus food and always cheap for the retailers—accelerated the growth of food banks. And in 2018, the government began dishing out grants to charities redistributing food waste on ecological grounds. Under this system, public, private and nonprofit sectors were now working together to service growing queues at food banks. 

A conspiracy of compassion

Those on the ground, however, said repeatedly it wasn’t working. What might be termed the conspiracy of compassion between business, the state and charities masks—but doesn’t solve—the underlying problem: people’s incomes aren’t enough to cover the cost of living. If paying rent, settling bills and reimbursing debts are the problem, free food won’t stop people knocking at the food bank again next week. Many say food banks are like putting a plaster over a gaping wound.

Worse, critics fear the very existence of food banks distracts from the need to solve such underlying problems: low wages, high rents and inadequate benefits. Some food aid charities take this view too, and a deep ideological fault line has divided the sector. There have often been clashes between the two biggest networks, the Trussell Trust, with its initial mission to open “a food bank in every town,” and the more radical Independent Food Aid Network, launched in 2016 with a manifesto to abolish the need for food banks altogether. 

Webster’s food bank in Nottingham is one link in the Trussell chain. It is housed in a brown-brick church in the Top Valley estate. When I visited in January 2019, Webster gave me a tour of his shipping containers. They’re piled 8.5ft high with “ambient foods,” the industry term for long-life staples such as dried pasta, canned fish and tinned soup, which serve as the base of emergency food parcels.

 A standard food parcel inventory is 20 items, with tins of spaghetti hoops and baked beans clunking together at the bottom of the bag. One-litre cartons of orange juice (from concentrate) and milk (UHT) are standard, as are tea or coffee—guidelines state “not both”—and on a good week, maybe rice pudding or a pack of biscuits.

Over the years, Webster, who’s in his early 50s and sports a mossy grey beard, noticed the typical visitor changed from single men to families. Webster’s internal figures for January showed that households with children comprised 47 per cent of the food parcels he distributes. National figures paint a similar picture. In a study of 18 Trussell food banks conducted in 2017 by Rachel Loopstra, a lecturer in nutrition at King’s College London, 39 per cent of households receiving food aid included a child under 16. This tallies with the evolution of benefit policy: New Labour was stringent with single jobseekers, but benefits for families with children tended to rise; those rises went into reverse under Cameron.

Be they disabled people, those who are mentally unwell, or asylum seekers with no rights to either employment or proper benefits, those who have problems over and above hardship and hunger are over-represented at food banks. In this way volunteers have also become a substitute for a range of frontline services, from debt advice to mental health support. One person told me that arriving at a food bank often feels like leaving your dignity at the door.

It has all come a long way since the Trussell Trust started in 1997 as a charity for homeless children in Bulgaria. In 2000, founders Paddy and Carol Henderson started giving out food parcels in Salisbury after realising local children were going to bed hungry, too. Trussell sits within the Christian giving tradition, and often cites a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that begins: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” In 2004, Trussell became a nonprofit social franchise—easily replicable local charities, locking hands under the Trussell umbrella—and churches up and down the nation offered a pre-existing infrastructure. 

“The Trussell Trust’s vision is that every town should have a food bank, creating a nation where no one needs to go hungry,” a mission statement from 2013 said, a point when three new Trussell food banks were opening each week. It wasn’t silent when the benefit cuts began to bite, warning that food bank dependence could spiral by the end of the coalition government—and yet it duly prepared to meet the need. Other voices always doubted that charitable food aid was the right response, but at this stage no rival to Trussell’s model existed.

And the environment was one that very much supported the growth. The year 2011 was a particularly formative one. In September the coalition government allowed Jobcentre offices to refer people to Trussell Trust branches when their benefits didn’t cover their cost of living. The Labour government had resisted any collaboration—however informal—between food banks and the state. Conservative ministers saw no problem with an arm’s-length relationship. 

Meanwhile, Defra was exploring “surplus food redistribution”—acting as a middleman for charities to reclaim leftover supermarket food destined for landfill. Nothing terribly large scale at first. Defra tasked Wrap, the anti-waste charity, with running a pilot scheme in 2012 with a handful of stores. Charities like FareShare acted like a sort of Royal Mail for grocery waste; they would collect food from round the back of Morrisons, for instance, then drop it off at a local food charity. Defra considered the results promising. Rollout began, topping up donations for Trussell and independent food banks alike.

Few objected to a scheme that seemed sensible, green and benevolent. Manufacturing and retail sectors had been laden with waste ever since changes after the “foot-and-mouth disease” outbreak banned feeding surplus groceries to pigs, and it had become more of a problem for businesses since Labour’s increases in landfill taxes. And those concerned about hunger now had a new imperative too: there appeared to be no alternative. 

Frank Field, a long-term MP until 2019, has a record of campaigning on poverty that stretches back to the 1960s. Briefly Tony Blair’s minister for welfare reform, he had a reputation for working across party lines, sometimes to the point of infuriating fellow parliamentarians in a Labour Party he has since quit. Initially, he assumed David Cameron would be as concerned as him about the “staggering” rise in hardship, but the Prime Minister dodged the issue whenever Field raised it. “There was such a total commitment to George Osborne’s austerity programme,” Field recalled. “I was absolutely shattered that I couldn’t make contact.”

Once his hopes of softening austerity died, Field changed tack, convening an all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty. Its first report emerged in 2015 and it turned out that Field was now hoping for a “big breakthrough” in “eliminating hunger” by expanding the redistribution of unwanted food. Some were troubled. Tim Lang, a professor at City University, London, who advised Defra on food policy during Gordon Brown’s administration, saw it as a deeply flawed arrangement: “You’re treating the poor as substitutes for pigs,” he told me.

But when Michael Gove arrived at Defra in 2017, food waste redirection started moving even faster. Described by his Labour shadow, Sue Hayman, as “this celebrity politician who is very good at getting attention,” Gove announced that the Conservative Party co-chair Ben Elliot would fill a new post as “Food Surplus and Waste Champion.” He pledged that near sell-by date stocks would go “to those in most need,” and later launched a £15m fund to tackle food waste, which was used to give local charities grants to collect surplus stock from grocery stores. FareShare, the largest food waste middleman, was awarded £1.9m by Defra last year—building the infrastructure to entrench the system—and by 2018 was delivering to around 900 food banks.

The effect of all this was evident to Carl Peet, who helps run the independent Rock Foundation food bank in Grimsby: “We live in a culture now where there’s a conveyor belt [of food] coming,” he said when I visited. The arrangement magics away supermarket waste, shrinks the UK’s environmental footprint and serves a pressing social need. While politicians value its efficiency, campaigners are concerned about the moral implications of seeking to solve the consequences of a decade of welfare cuts with food aid—and they say it does nothing to prevent destitution.

Banking on failure 

Internationally, the UK is a latecomer to food banking. In Canada, the first food distribution centre opened in the city of Edmonton, Alberta in January 1981, the month that Ronald Reagan and the neoliberal age were inaugurated south of the border. Food banks multiplied following a recession and the welfare cuts of Brian Mulroney, the Conservative Prime Minister from 1984. (Mulroney delivered a eulogy at Reagan’s funeral.) By the 1990s food banks were part of the fabric of Canadian society and, by the 2000s, multinational supermarkets were making regular, dependable donations. “Everything got very shiny,” said Elaine Power, associate professor of health studies at Queen’s University, Ontario. Today, Canadian food banks are pervasive. Great industrial warehouses holding acres of stock often sit on the outskirts of cities, positioned just out of sight, like the scullery of a stately home. And yet the number of people in Canada—a country where the 2008 recession was milder than most—struggling with insecure access to food has increased even after decades of food aid, rising from 3.4m in 2008 to 4.4m in 2018, according to government figures. One in eight Canadian households is food insecure. 

It was a trip to Canada that upended the thinking of Seb Mayfield, persuading him that food banks might be part of the problem rather than the solution. Mayfield, once described by Time Out London as an “urban food guru,” is a bald, affable man who then worked in food recycling and, among other things, taught households how to minimise waste at his urban growing network, Food Up Front. But in 2013, Mayfield began to notice only affluent Londoners were interested in his sustainability campaigns. So in 2014, he started conducting research for a local food bank. 

He flew to Toronto in 2015 and met food insecurity authority Valerie Tarasuk. Mayfield told her his plan to launch a new food bank network—a rival to the Trussell Trust—which would foreground human dignity by jettisoning any system of official referrals, and try to address poverty by teaching cooking and urban growing workshops. But Tarasuk still wasn’t impressed. “It’s really important you don’t appear to be the solution,” she urged Mayfield. “Tell people that you can’t fix it!” Later, he visited Nick Saul at Community Food Centres Canada and glimpsed another possibility, a twofold role as a temporary necessity offering relief but, at the same time, a political vehicle to lobby for better social security. “Hey Seb, there’s a different way of doing this,” Saul told Mayfield. He flew back to Britain with a revolutionised idea of what food banks should be: something more like a permanent campaign group than a Jobcentre. 

In 2016, he launched the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), which, following Tarasuk’s advice, promised to be “a catalyst for change” to “end the need for charitable food assistance.” Ifan, today the UK’s second largest network with over 400 food banks, rejected the Trussell Trust’s former mission “that every town should have a food bank.” 

Around the same time, Trussell’s then chief executive, David McAuley, was proposing a closer relationship with the DWP—a direct hotline between food banks and their local Jobcentre Plus. Mayfield saw this was dangerous. “At that time, you just couldn’t find any mention on their website of any desire to end the need for food banks,” he recalled. In Nottingham, the DWP has been Webster’s largest referral agency. “I can show you a stack this high of referrals from the Department for Work and Pensions,” said Webster, waving his hand 6ft in the air.

But Trussell’s tune changed in 2018 when Emma Revie took over as Chief Executive. “You can’t just keep pulling people out the river,” Garry Lemon, Trussell’s Director of Policy and Research since that same year, told me. “You have to go upstream and ask why so many people keep falling in.”

Revie and Lemon still had to get their food bank network on board, each of which is a legally independent charity. They travelled across the UK, asking managers how they felt about ending food aid. “I’ll admit I was actually quite nervous at first,” Lemon said. Those on the ground however—weary managers like Webster—agreed. For some food banks it couldn’t come soon enough. “There were times before Emma was around where we would question whether, in order to work ourselves out of existence, we needed not to be part of the Trussell Trust,” Reverend Christine Jones, a founding trustee of the Trussell-franchise West Cheshire Foodbank, told me in August. Thankfully, she said, that’s no longer the case. 

Yet some tensions continued to rumble, including over how far—or not—to accept millions of pounds in donations from supermarkets like Asda. Sabine Goodwin, co-ordinator of Ifan since Mayfield stepped down in 2018, told me that accepting such donations can bolster corporate reputations while institutionalising the charity system. Nevertheless, since 2018 those responsible for dishing out food to the hungry in Britain are also increasingly agreeing that part of their work is to put themselves out of business. 

Don’t let a crisis go to waste

Global authorities on food insecurity have eyed the UK’s soaring numbers of food banks with concern. When I asked Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, why he decided to visit the UK in 2018, he didn’t have to think very hard. “Primarily because it was a laboratory for neoliberal economic approaches to welfare,” he said, speaking with a slow, baritone Australian accent. His report concluded the experiment is failing. “The food bank is the perfect indicator of failed government policies,” he told me.

What, then, would it take for the extraordinary growth to reverse? Specialists variously suggested to me that a higher minimum wage, rent control and cracking down on casual hiring practices could all help. But more than anything, I was told, the welfare state needs beefing up. What “many people probably don’t even realise,” said IPPR’s Clare McNeil, is that when someone in the UK loses their job, low benefit rates mean they “automatically fall into poverty.” Designing a new system requires a shift in thinking in the corridors of Whitehall—and, perhaps, in all the streets up and down the country where British voters live. Yet the task itself is not strenuous. “It wouldn’t be technically hard to end food insecurity,” said McNeil. “Politically, it would be immensely difficult.”

Back in spring, a slew of big budget government schemes on everything from direct wage replacement (“furlough”) to restaurant subsidies raised hopes that systematic action on hunger could follow; that after years of being ignored, new solutions could be born kicking and screaming and gasping for air. “At this Covid moment, everything feels loose, like it’s not in its usual place,” Power told me from Ontario. “It’s like throwing a pack of cards up in the air—you don’t really know where they’re going to land.”

For British food banks, the pandemic immediately sparked not only surging demand, but also collapsing donations and self-isolating volunteers. Trussell kept in place its usual referral protocols—only those food insecure by financial hardship, not people in shielding categories, would be eligible for parcels—but demand hit the roof anyway, spiking by more than 80 per cent during the same period last year. Ifan’s figures were even starker, with demand up 177 per cent compared to last year. 

Actions were taken quickly to facilitate emergency relief—but, to campaigners’ frustrations, these actions were very much through the existing food charity system. Defra negotiated with supermarkets to source corporate food handouts, planned logistics for deliveries to people shielding from the virus, and splashed out an extra £16m for food surplus redirection to food banks and other charities. Over Easter weekend, disaster nonprofits also stepped in to boost stocks in London, teaming up with City Hall and Tesco.

Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of the food and farming charity Sustain—who suddenly found that she had government “committees coming out of my ears”—welcomed much of the government action. But as the virtual meetings rolled on she became increasingly frustrated. When discussions turned to the broader question of underlying poverty, the Whitehall silos came down. “Once it comes to financial hardship, Defra hasn’t got a budget to help with that,” she said, and the onus moves back to the Department of Work and Pensions. But many academics consider this division a fantasy. Food poverty is not, experts broadly agree, a special type of poverty—food is simply the flexible item in the household budget in contrast to debts and bills.

Going in the opposite direction from food banks—and having the state pay precarious people money through welfare to buy their own meals—means allowing them to direct their own finances, which is why campaigners see rising reliance on food charities as connected to a resurgence of punitive Victorian attitudes towards the feckless or “undeserving” poor. But the pandemic may have seen the pendulum begin to swing back towards the idea of providing cash from the state, so people can buy their own meals. After years of cuts to social security, in April there was a significant increase: a £20 a week rise in the Universal Credit base rate. This was a big departure, not only from the Osborne-era cuts but also from New Labour, who often froze benefits for childless adults in real terms. But campaigners say the £20 benefit upgrade is inadequate, still leaving food banks picking up the slack, and also point out—crucially—that it is time-limited, and that there will thus be an acute wave of hardship if it is allowed to expire, as planned, next April. 

There are signs that such campaigners may finally be getting a hearing. Rashford’s sustained, nonpartisan campaigning famously provoked two grudging U-turns from government, first to fund free school meals over the summer holidays, and then over winter holidays, with another £170m on top for local councils to support struggling families. This pushed hunger up the agenda. “Marcus Rashford altered everything,” said Lang. “A young man, absolutely determined, with very big access to the media—well argued, well informed, and he didn’t give up. It seriously dented the Tories’ confidence.” 


While Rashford has been working with FareShare, Ifan and Trussell have buried their feud and been united in calls for the government to eradicate the need for food banks. Trussell even refused a government grant in the region of £35m, said one person familiar with the talks, challenging the government to solve poverty without relying on the voluntary sector. (Trussell was offered sustained opportunities to comment on this claim but repeatedly refused to confirm or deny it, saying only that it has never taken central government funding. “It’s really important to us that we retain an independent voice,” said Lemon of its general policy, but refused to discuss this specific claim.) The source said Trussell lobbied for financial support for the welfare system instead, and was instrumental in winning £63m in grants for local authorities to aid the food insecure.

But with a burst of food banks launched in 2020 alone—around 150 new organisations have joined Ifan since last March—and with no permanent benefit reform in prospect, it’s likely that the task of feeding Britain’s hungry will remain on the shoulders of a band of under-resourced volunteers.

In Nottingham, with redundancies climbing despite the last-minute extension of the furlough scheme until March 2021, Webster is preparing for a surge in demand. He splashed out hundreds of pounds on his first freezer after receiving an emergency cash grant from local businesses and the county council. Webster yearns, above all, for a world without the need for food banks. “We don’t want to get caught up in being an alternative to a proper, decent, humane benefits system and people having a real living wage,” he told me. But once you’re running a food bank and meeting need in the community, it’s extremely difficult for managers to do anything but keep ploughing on. Speaking over the phone, Webster’s wearied voice seemed to switch in tone from anger to resignation as he looked to the immediate future: “The pressure on us is going to get even greater.”