Why it's wrong to be ashamed of Britain's food banks

They are not a sign of a society gone bad, but of the strength of Britain's social fabric

29 June 2013

9:00 AM

29 June 2013

9:00 AM

The very existence of food banks is taken as proof of something rotten in Britain. If Brits are queuing for charity food parcels, the state has failed. Labour MPs brim with righteous anger: they call the rise of these charitable centres a ‘scandal’. David Cameron, for his part, wishes people would stop talking about them. The political consensus is that having anyone depend on charity handouts is a disgrace.

But that’s not what those who use the food banks think. Nor is it an opinion shared by those who run them. The Trussell Trust, now the biggest food bank provider, regards its growth as a sign of success. Standing in a warehouse crammed with tinned food, the Trust’s chief executive Chris Mould says his mission is to open a food bank in every town in the country.  ‘They are an emergency intervention that costs society far less than the problems that would arise further down the line,’ he says. ‘Family breakdown, debt, crime and mental illness.’ It’s not as if the government is offering any better solutions.

Food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer. They exist as a sticking plaster, usually to help families who have been allocated welfare but are waiting for the bureaucracy to process the payments. They are an emergency support in towns and cities. Without them, families would go hungry for days. Their existence is not a sign of poverty, but an indication that a welfare state with six million people on its books can get things wrong.


People don’t just wander in for a meal. Every client is referred by charity case workers, Jobcentres or social services and receives three food bank vouchers for three days’ worth of meals. Only in exceptional circumstances is food offered for longer. Walking through their doors are mothers who are left with no money to feed their children after an unexpected bill, or out-of-work labourers waiting for their benefits to come through, whether due to a glitch in the system or because their entitlement is being recalculated.

And poverty? Just one in five of those helped by food banks cite low income, and one in six mention benefit changes. There are abused women, families stricken with debt problems or overwhelmed in the holidays when there are no free school meals to tide them over. Many of the problems food banks deal with were deeply ingrained before the downturn struck.

The idea of food banks being a symptom of the coalition government’s failure is difficult to reconcile with their history. The first one appeared in Salisbury in 2000. It was the initiative of Paddy and Carol Henderson, who had returned to Britain after years of working with children leaving state orphanages in Bulgaria. They were surprised when a Salisbury mother — having read about their work in the local paper — complained to them that while she was pleased they were helping hungry children in eastern Europe, she didn’t have any food for her own family that night. Today, the Salisbury food bank is a bustling centre in a church building. Clients munch baked beans on toast at tables with cheery gingham cloths and silk flowers. Volunteers joke and clatter about in a small kitchen area. It’s the opposite of the Dickensian image conjured by the critics.

I meet one of its clients: Jo Thomson, a mother of two, who wonders what she would have done if she had not been able to apply for food. She and her two teenage children are struggling to find work. Her abusive and controlling husband left her without any money three years ago. Her home is neat, but all the switches are off at the wall, and the modest television is going, because it simply costs too much to run. She is waiting for her benefits application to be processed. Until it is, she is trying to eke out a life with two grown children that means using as little of everything as possible. ‘I am trying my hardest,’ she says quietly. ‘But I cannot meet the bills. It sounds pathetic, it makes me feel so ashamed.’ The food parcels have kept her going until the benefits come through.

When a local charity or church sets up a food bank, it connects two very important groups: those in crisis who need the food, and donors who are moved to provide it. Almost all of the food handed out by the banks comes from public donations. And it’s basic stuff: tinned fruit, fish, meat, pasta and biscuits, with other essentials like nappies and toilet roll thrown in. Some of those who donate have previously used the service themselves. Others become part of the network of volunteers who fed almost 350,000 people in the 12 months to April, nearly triple the numbers helped last year.

It is a striking phenomenon — of the existence of charity, rather than poverty. Those who say food banks are a scandal should visit one. And when one is established in your town, don’t weep and gnash your teeth. Just celebrate the fact that you live in a big-hearted society.

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Show comments
  • WillyTheFish

    “… And when one is established in your town, don’t weep and gnash your teeth. Just celebrate the fact that you live in a big-hearted society.”

    And help out by donating some food next time you are in a supermarket. Best way to ‘celebrate’ is to join in and *do* something.

  • Left ferret

    OOOOPs – sorry have I missed something. Our social fabric is not there to cover bad government. I would never want to see folk starving on the streets – but increasingly I am. Please even the poor deserve respect — not just handouts

  • Graham Thompson

    Talk about obtuse.

    No-one dislikes food banks. Unless there are some swivel-eyed UKIP loons who think the poor deserve to starve to increase their moral fibre.

    A lot of people dislike governments who impoverish their countries to the point where they need food banks which were previously unnecessary.

    • WillyTheFish

      “Unless there are some swivel-eyed UKIP loons who think the poor deserve to starve to increase their moral fibre.”

      Is this UKIP policy? Or merely a figment of your rather unpleasant imagination?

      I, for one, am a UKIP supporter (no swivel eyes last time I looked in the mirror) and I actively support my local food bank. Sorry to have to spoil your malicious stereotype.

    • Philip

      What a pillock you are.

  • Matthew Pearson

    I might be more inclined to think this article is a reasonable commentary on foodbanks (rather than a piece of logic-defying nonsense), if the author had been in the position of ever having to use a foodbank herself, rather than casting an approving eye over one during a PR managed visit. And note that buying some items which have been reduced in Waitrose on Friday evening doesn’t count as visiting a foodbank. Visiting a foodbank because you have no food to eat counts as visiting a foodbank.

    Foodbanks are a symptom of a society where the lowest paid cannot afford to llve properly anymore and the state subsidises the profits of large corporations through tax credits, and where the welfare state safety net is so thin that thousands fall through it every week. Of course foodbanks do show that charity is alive and well, but celebrating this whilst ignoring the wider issues which create the foodbanks is poor journalism.

    • cicero

      “Foodbanks are a symptom of a society where the lowest paid cannot afford to live properly anymore”

      Define ‘properly’

      • Matthew Pearson

        properly defined as, ‘not needing to rely on charity to feed themselves or their families’ or another way of looking at: not needing to go to a food bank 🙂

  • doledrumdiva

    It may well be true that some donors to food banks are former recipients, but it is also true that a lot of the people who donate food or time know they are only a short step/few pounds away from being future recipients. I call this community, not charity. And while we can wax lyrical about the strength of our communities, with warm, fuzzy feelings, they are going to be tested to their limit as every month passes, because the government is doing nothing but exacerbating the crippling need for them. Nothing rosy about that.

  • Spoonydoc

    According to the Trussell Trust, families relying on them went from 3000 to 40,000 from 2005 to 2010 but have now soared to a massive 350,000 , tripling in 2012 alone. This doesn’t take into account families relying on other independent and local food banks and an estimated 500,000 people are now dependent on food banks.

    Did the UK suddenly become 100 times more compassionate? Did people suddenly become irresponsible and incapable of budgeting? Or is there a huge problem developing with our welfare system due to recent cuts and rule changes, started under the last government and continued apace under this one? I know which is most likely.

    • SarahK

      According to the article there were no food banks in 2000. Where there are no food banks there cannot be people using them. In my town we have only just got a food bank this year and therefore all of a sudden there are going to be hundreds more people using a food bank. Is that an infinite increase in food poverty? Given how recent the existence of food banks is, the increase will almost all be explained by the increase in food banks. Benefits have gone up by inflation on the whole (at least until the last budget in April), so presumably people previously simply went hungry.

      • Centrist

        Since 1980, if benefits had gone up in line with inflation then a weekly jobs seekers payment would be in the order of £120.

        • SarahK

          I’m talking about between 2005 and 2010 obviously if you read the comment I replied to.

      • Gary Crisp

        That’s an interesting point. What did people do before food banks? I’d hazard a guess and agree that people probably went hungry. We have just launched a foodbank in our small town and it’s been very busy so definitely a need for them.

  • philjvtaylor

    What the Trussell Trust do is great and food banks meet a need that the benefit system never has met.

    Earlier this year the Trussell Trust claimed that “Trussell Trust foodbanks have seen the biggest rise in numbers given emergency food since the charity began in 2000”.

    This is false.

    According to Trussell 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2012-13, compared to 128,697 in 2011-12 That is an increase of 2.7 times.

    In 2005-6 they gave out 2,814 parcels which increased to 9,174 in 2006-7. This was an increase of 3.3 times.

    Trussell is enjoying exponential growth through good times and bad as it expands to fill an unmet need. An unmet need that has been in the benefit system for decades and has nothing to do with the current economic conditions nor current social policies.

    Now that Trussell has essentially carved out a niche for itself should it continue? I would say yes of course. Maybe the left would nationalise it.

    • DentonJLH

      They said “biggest rise *in numbers*” – you’ve worked out biggest rise as a proportion. In numbers, an increase of 218,295 is a much bigger increase than 6360.

      • philjvtaylor

        You have missed my point. The increase is about the rate that Trusselll can increase in size. Not an increase in need. Who knows what the saturation point is? 1 million? Once we have been at the saturation point for a few years we can start to draw some conclusions about the impact of policies and the economy on the numbers. The current growth simply means that a previously unmet need is being met. Nothing more.

        • Cai_a

          This growth wasn’t accompanied by a similar growth in the numbers of foodbanks so does seem to show that there is increased demand.

          Personally I have seen our usage double from March (146 people fed) to May (289 people fed) while nothing under our control has changed. The only major change has been to the benefit system. I know that other TT foodbanks have reported similar increases in demand over the same period of time.

  • Daniel Maris

    Well I have rarely read such a load of tripe. Such facilities are most certainly a sign of social breakdown.

  • allymax bruce

    Isabel, you should be ashamed, passing this ugly sneering trash off as journalism.
    But I’m not at all surprised you have these ideals/values; Fagin is, as Fagin does!

  • David Hodgson

    A “big-hearted society” would have no need for food banks Isabel. Think your viewpoint may be somewhat different if you were the necessary recipient of charity.

    • cicero

      Well a big-hearted welfare state is worse than charity because it’s not voluntarily given OR received.

  • willshome

    No doubt the sight of Lady Bountiful knocking at 19th-century hovels with a basket of food would be an equally uplifting example of generosity rather than inequality? Giving to a food bank, like loaning a cup of sugar to a neighbour, should be something we’re all capable of. Paying a decent rate of tax on one’s capital and income seems to be beyond many.

  • Stewart Edwards

    “Glitch” in benefits system – that was almost funny – over Christmas due to an official error what ended up totalling £600 of benefits were suspended, and now my tax credits have been suspended for coming on two months and no one in HMRC knows (or will admit) why. It wouldn’t be so bad but if you get Income Support you automatically qualify for CTC so there are no ifs buts or maybes involved – children in education you get it. Methinks the governments new shiny expensive computer system isn’t working quite as it should be. But not to worry for as HMRC said to me “don’t worry you will get it all backdated when we work out the problem.” Great, thanks. And in the meantime……
    For a mature nation to need food banks is a disgrace. Simple.
    The success of food banks might well show our good nature, but they also show how bad our government has been over the years to put us in this position.

  • Centrist

    A poor attempt at defending the indefensible.

  • ohforheavensake

    I honestly think that there’s something immoral about your article. it’s so easy to stand back from something like this, and to applaud the strength of our social fabric, when it doesn’t affect you.

    There’s nothing to celebrate here. I’m glad that someone’s helping people who are desperate (& yes, we donate to the local food bank here). But I’d be happier if I didn’t have to; I’d be happier if there were no need for anyone to scrabble for food at any time of the month.

    You need to think about what the social fabric actually is. Food banks aren’t a sign of our moral health; they’re an indication that we are ruled by people who can accommodate themselves to the idea that the poor might starve.

  • James Derounian

    What a ridiculous article! “Food banks are not…a sign of a society gone bad”!? I wonder how the author would feel surviving on charity? Not having the money to feed herself?

    Particularly faulty logic when the author actually acknowledges that “without them, families would go hungry for days”….doesn’t sound like a healthy society to me.

    “It is a striking phenomenon — of the existence of charity, rather than poverty.” Tosh…..it shows charity in the face of poverty! Self-help as survival
    Oh…and my wife helps at a food bank in that well-known ‘food desert’….the Cotswolds!

  • Joseph Black

    Church Action on Poverty are making a series of short film to compliment their campaign “Britain Isn’t Eating”.