Who uses food banks?

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Today has seen coverage in various media reports of yet another study on food banks and food bank use – there’s little new here, and little that those involved haven’t been saying to Government since at least 2012 – but somehow it falls upon closed ears.

This “new” major study from researchers at Oxford University and King’s College London has tried to get beyond the stereotypes, looking at those using the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.

“In the most basic terms, these are people with many overlapping forms of “destitution”.

They have been missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. One in five had slept rough in recent months.

They are at the lowest end of the low-income spectrum, with an average income below £320 per month, described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”.

These are usually people of working age, middle-aged rather than young or old, mostly living in rented accommodation.

About five out of six are without a job and depending on benefits”. 

(Source BBC News)
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously stumbled early in the election campaign when she seemed to wave off food bank use by describing the reasons people use them as “complex”. Likewise another Tory MP Dominic Raab brought comments when he said that many people use food banks as a response to “cash flow” issues. These responses are deliberately obtuse, or else a callous twisting of the reality of many peoples lives. The precarious nature of many of the poorest incomes do indeed mean that food banks become a lifeline when making harsh financial choices; “Should I put money in the gas meter or buy food?” – “Should I feed my children – or buy the new school shoes I’ve been told to buy to avoid the social worker being called?” Yes these are real comments, yes I’ve heard them directly with my own ears, and if Dominic Raab wants to call that a “cash flow problem”, or Theresa May thinks its all “complex” then I think they need to examine their consciences a little more.
Over the past few weeks our shelves at Pxi-Parson Cross Initiative Projects have been getting more and more depleted, and have required more and more topping up. We’ve spent nearly another £100 this week alone on food in addition to that donated directly.
We are nearing a crisis point – what happens then I genuinely do not know.
 
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‘Poverty may be complex, but it is not inevitable’? (Part 1)

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Today’s post is a first here, a guest post from Jane Perry. You can read more about her at the bottom of the post, it was originally posted on May 2, 2017 / Posted in Christianity, Church of England.

 

Dear Mrs May,

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday (30/4/2017) you said “There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks”. It must be hard, as Prime Minister, to be faced with so many complex problems – negotiating Brexit whilst attempting to maintain the economic stability which you rightly identify as key to the long-term security of our public services, being just two of them. But I do have some good news for you: The continued rise in food bank use is not inevitable. It is something you can deal with, and relatively simply.

In 2014, I was part of research lead by Oxfam, working with the Church of England and other partners, to understand food bank use. We wanted to go beyond taking cheap shots at ‘welfare reform’ to uncover the underlying reasons why families have little option other to turn to food banks and set out what might be done to prevent that happening. You don’t need to do that work, the detail is all there in our Emergency Use Only report, now supported by an increasing range of other studies. And there’s little need to worry about whether those findings are still current, the main thing that has substantially changed in the last 3 years is that things have got harder and less certain for many of those who need our help most.

If you read the report, or indeed just talk to people in food banks, I’m afraid there is one central finding that you won’t be able to ignore: Most people are there because they simply do not have enough money to meet essential bills and to feed their families. With alarming frequency, families told us something had happened which left them with literally no, or very little income. We called this ‘acute income crisis’ and set out how it could be distinguished from – even though it was usually underpinned by – ongoing, chronic, low income. I’ll return to low income in a moment, but first we need to be clear: acute income crisis is real and is affecting 100,000’s of people across the UK right now. That is shocking, but it is something we, or rather Government acting on our behalf, can do something about. Here are 3 suggestions for where to start:

  1. No one leaves a Jobcentre hungry. In the UK, we expect the social security system to be there to support the poorest and most vulnerable, when they need it most. There are good reasons why Jobcentres, not food banks, are the best place to offer immediate help and ongoing support to work on underlying problems. That is what our benefit system is designed to do. However, repeated evidence shows that is not currently happening as it should do. You can fix this.
  2. Ensure continuity of income. Often the biggest challenges facing low-income families is insecurity: not being able to rely on regular income, from work or benefits. Universal Credit is a big step forward. It is essential UC is adequately funded and implemented well, ensuring that a basic safety net is there for everyone, all the time. It is early days, but reports from foodbanks in UC areas are worrying. With continuity of income in mind, you might particularly encourage DWP to think again about the 6-week waiting time for first payments, or at least make sure a robust short-term support system is in place and that all claimants are made aware of it.
  3. An economy that works for everyone. Low pay and insecure jobs are a blight on British society, as is the ‘race to the bottom’ to ensure that benefit payments are kept lower than wages. When work pays, then there is no reason to be afraid of giving decent benefit payments to those who genuinely need it. Again, your Government’s increase in the Minimum Wage are very welcome, but we need a decent Living Wage. Too many people are working hard in jobs where the pay for which falls short of what they need for an acceptable minimum standard of living.

As I’m sure you’ve reflected since, the only appropriate response to Andrew Marr’s question about nurses using food banks is “if that’s correct, that is appalling. I’ll look into it and do everything I can”. The only thing that is intractable about foodbank use is the determination to love and care shown by those who run or support them. That social solidarity should be encouraged but there are so many better ways that energy could be used, turning ‘I need…’ into ‘We can…’. However, people cannot move forward if they are left without enough money for food. Their lives are complicated, but the message is clear: This will not do. Policymaking is complex, but that’s no reason for inaction.

 

Jane Perry  previously worked within government, at the Department for Work and Pensions, and for the Policy Studies Institute and National Centre for Social Research. She is now an independent social research consultant. She was the lead author of Emergency Use Only report (Oxfam et al, 2014), pioneered the ‘Listen Up!’ project in Sheffield Diocese, and also produced Paying over the Odds (Church Action on Poverty, 2010).

 

Those who hunger …

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“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Matthew 5.6)

Last weekend, Sheffield Church Action on Poverty held its eighth annual Pilgrimage. As part of this years event I (as Chair of the group) announced the launch of #EndHungerUK a national three year campaign led by Church Action on Poverty and other national organisations that will try to engage people in discussions around poverty and food, and hopefully build  a consensus of opinion and new policy to move on from the place we find ourselves today.

Let’s remind ourselves of what that place looks like in UK 2016:

“Latest Trussell Trust figures show a 2% increase in foodbank use on the previous year with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by our network of 424 foodbanks in 2015/16.”

Of course this is a fraction of the story – in Sheffield there are at least, around 16-20 emergency food banks and similar services. three of these are members of Trussell Trust. That one million plus figure is therefore a likely tip of the iceberg.

From our own experience, food bank use is varied. It includes all kinds of people with long term mental health and other associated issues, but it also includes short term emergencies like the person who received no payments from DWP whilst working his first month in hand, like those who’ve been on the receiving end of DWP sanctions, those who seen benefits messed up by the likes of Concentrix, and those who are just struggling because all of a sudden they’ve been hit by an on foreseen event.In our case one thing that is both upsetting and alarming is the rise in families requiring help from the food bank service – in our early days (2010-12) we fed very few families and children, in 2014-15 this had risen to around 1 in every 3 people we fed being children (under the age of 18), and this year we’ve seen that rise again to something approaching 46% of those we are now feeding being children.

Now  lets be clear (if a little controversial) the problem here isn’t really one about food. There is of course food a plenty in the UK just as there is across the first world, so much food in fact that we see alongside food banks large amounts of food waste. There are  moral, and economic, arguments around food waste – how its created, what we can do to prevent it, how it could be re-used (even as a basis for feeding people through charitable means). But food waste is not the experience we address in food banks – the issue there is poverty and fairness.

In the world, we experience food in a number of different ways, lets explore a few here to think about their different impacts.

  • Food as Commodity: This is the most common way we all experience food in the world today, and have for centuries. Whether from the local farmer, market or multi national supermarkets, food is bought and sold across the world. Poverty of course restricts your access to these markets, making choices limited, and putting some options out of reach. Food therefore like every other commodity comes at a price, and if that’s one you can’t afford then you’re left out – looking for another option, or go without. It’s one of the major problems with how we see food in the first world, divorced from its production, separated from nature, simply another commodity to be bought and sold.
  • Food as a Reward & Punishment: Of course sometimes food is given (or withheld) by those with power over others, at a basic level it maybe a parent giving a child a treat if they’ve achieved some task or other, or bottles of wine offered as “bonus rewards” for those who efforts are appreciated at work. Even as adults we will use food to help us in certain situations to gain favour, for example by taking a business partner out for lunch. Of course there’s a dark side too – food withheld from those who fail to perform, or who those with power want to punish.
  • Food as Social Bonding. Food has a real place in the forming and keeping of human bonds and relationships. Families traditionally eat together, celebrations often centre around food of some kind or other. Food undoubtedly has a social value beyond simple nutrition.
  • Food as a Gift: Then there is the food given to others as gifts. Once again this may be as treats for those we care about (presents bought and shared out of love) or it may be through, what Christians would associate with “Agape” (charitable love) where the gift is given with no condition or expectation, and ultimately as an expression that all food (and everything else) is a gift from God.

Increasingly, in the case of food banks in particular (and our response to food and poverty in general) these instances have been causing me more and more concern, as I feel the motives and even the practice are becoming modified by the world beyond.

Food donated to and given by food banks is increasingly being turned into, and seen as, a “commodity”. Charity Commission guidance says that all food should be accounted for and reported in the annual report and returns, thus more and more food banks are resorting to weighing in and out food as a way of measuring its commodity (financial) value.

Most food banks (our own included) operate some kind of “voucher” or “referral” system, exactly how these operate vary from place to place and food bank to food bank, there is no common unified system – because food banks are not, have not been designed to be, part of the system – they are a symptom of the system failure. However, the consequence of the voucher / referral system is that access is through a gatekeeper of one kind or another. Referrers might, and do, include: Social Workers, Health Vistors, Housing Associations, Citizens Advice and yes even the DWP themselves – in addition some food banks have reserved the ability to make in house referrals so no one has to leave hungry. The problem is here though, that somehow in this we’ve created a reward and punishment situation where a referrer has the power to make the decision about when someone (and indeed who) needs to be sent to a food bank.

Meanwhile, as I’m watching our volunteers pack another bag of food, serving a coffee and a sandwich, I try to remind myself (and those around me) this is meant to be a gift. An act of love and solidarity to our neighbours in need – it’s not fair, it can’t be fair. So what are the alternatives available – should we shut the doors and leave people to their own devices and a system that’s failed them? Should we allow ourselves as food banks to be co-opted into a new welfare system based on charity, and therefore seek a more equitable system of food distribution by becoming the system? Or do we continue to struggle through the mess of it all, understanding that only campaigning, and a massive change in policy and the way we together provide for the livelihoods of all citizens will resolve this situation in the end?

Meanwhile we’ll be back again next Friday to do our best, to respond with love and grace.

Our Fair City

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ckcx7ylwgaar15uSome of you might remember the Sheffield Fairness Commission back in 2013 and its report on the inequalities highlighted within the City. Well three years on and the campaign seems to be getting a reworking, in the last fortnight I received an email           re-inviting me to be a “Fairness Champion” (how could I refuse?) and informing me:

“Over the next twelve months we are going to be working on ‘Making Sheffield Fairer’, focusing on four campaigns – Fairer Food, Fairer Money, Fairer Work and Fairer Futures – initiating as many actions and as much ‘doing’ as possible, in order to start making as many small changes as possible that will make a real difference in communities and neighbourhoods across Sheffield.”

Great – so after yet another Friday in our food bank in Parson Cross, another Friday where we’ve fed around forty people (over half of which are were children) – let’s talk about “Fairer Food”. First thing Friday morning I was contacted by a Social Worker who asked me if I could help support one of her clients, a single Mum with two children. The Social Worker said she knew that her client wasn’t actually living in our catchment area, she had a referral for a neighbouring food bank but had been told that morning that they couldn’t help as they’d run out of food (a situation many food banks including ours have come close to before).  We helped, of course we did, “Glad we can ….” as we often say “….but sad we have to”  but lets be clear none of this is fair – none of this is just.

I’ve said it before, as have many others, FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION to either poverty or food insecurity, they are simply a desperate defensive response, a field hospital if you will for some of the casualties of current policies.

When Health Visitors phone me up asking for formula milk for a young mum and her child it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

When social workers, aware of the growing shortages, offer to set up workplace donation boxes to just “help out a little” it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

And when food banks have to ration food, or turn people away because of the shortages on their shelves, it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

We can’t go on like this!

I hear from friends who move in higher powered circles than me, valiantly banging their heads against walls that I would have long ago lost patience with. Telling me that those who walk the corridors of power still argue that the reasons behind why people turn to food banks are complex and cannot be put down solely to Government policy. Yes they are complex, we see people every week with a range of issues from mental health issues, benefit delays, debt, family breakdowns, homelessness, budgeting issues and many more. But the complexity of the problem does not mean the policy solution is to leave things to charity and voluntarism, these have a place but not for the general provision of basic welfare and social security, these are issues dealt with by a civic and civil society, fairness and justice don’t come through someone offering you free food.

So why do I continue to be involved and help run a food bank, when it seems that through our efforts all we are doing is giving government and those with power an excuse to continue to ignore the plight of those on the receiving end of “austerity” politics? In the end, for me its a question of faith and of solidarity with my brothers and sisters in need, as it says in the book of James:

“Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” – if you don’t give them the necessities of life?”
(James 2:15-16)

That still doesn’t make food banks a solution,  it makes them a humanitarian response to a desperate human need.