Food banks across the UK have multiplied at an extraordinary rate. By May 2022, there were 1,400 locations in the Trussell Trust network (the largest provider in the UK, having given out almost 3 million emergency food parcels between April 2022 and March 2023) and an additional 1,200 independent outlets.
I started working at the Citygate Hub, one of four Bournemouth Foodbank distribution centres, shortly after the Covid restrictions were lifted in 2021. I had enjoyed volunteering at vaccination centres and in various other roles during the lockdown and a food bank sounded like the next step, a worthy cause to support. It was an eye opener. What I came to realise is that while born from the best of intentions, the burgeoning of food banks ultimately lets the government off the hook when it comes to tackling food poverty long term.
Bournemouth is noted for a mix of affluent and underprivileged populations (Bournemouth East in particular includes some of the most deprived areas in England) and it has one of the largest concentrations of Trussell Trust food banks. Bournemouth Foodbank reports that the number of food parcels delivered in the town in 2022-2023 showed a 13.4% increase on the previous year, and a staggering 73.6% increase since 2018. When I joined the Citygate Hub and distribution centre, I discovered a busy, well-oiled organisation, with dedicated volunteers (around 200 across Bournemouth) and managers who are quick to translate their compassion and sense of fairness into hard work and regular commitment.
What I’m sharing here are some of my colleagues’ viewpoints.
Medi: “Food banks cannot replace welfare state”
On the frontline, I met Medi Bernard. Medi retired in 2022 from jobs in local government, her last post being Head of Service for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Libraries. She told me that it seemed natural to her to carry on serving local communities. She was already familiar with food banks, the local libraries offering a collection point for the Trussell Trust. She now volunteers about 12 hours a week, serving food bank users front of house as well as helping with admin tasks. She is very positive about her experience while remaining realistic about the limitations of the food bank model, which she thinks cannot replace a properly-funded welfare state. She is also aware of the controversy around some supermarkets acting out of self-interest as well as philanthropy and seeking to enhance their reputation by donating unsold food but she takes a pragmatic view:
“If there’s food going spare and people in need, it is only right to match the two”.
Debbie: “We’ve failed if we need food banks”
Debbie Coombes, Project Director for Bournemouth Foodbank, is overseeing a network that’s expanding from four to six locations. Her role is to ensure that the modus operandi and values of the Trussell Trust are respected, although the churches that are hosting the food banks also impart their own flavour to their respective operations. She explained that it is a key part of the model to identify the issue that led a person or family to come to a food bank before issuing a voucher – debt, unexpected bill, family breakdown, health problems – and to signpost the person to a possible solution, as the food parcels are meant to be an emergency response, not a long-term answer. However, Debbie has seen the demand spiralling from 600 people a year around 2010 to about 13,000 now and she is in no doubt that the main reason behind this increase is ill-inspired public policies rather than individual difficulties:
“As a society, we’ve failed if people have to come to a food bank”.
When Universal Credit was introduced as part of the Welfare Reform Act in 2012, for example, payment delays left recipients on tight budgets playing catch-up for a long time afterwards. They also risked being harshly penalised and having their benefits docked for minor infringements such as missed appointments at the Job Centre. In addition, Debbie blames the short-term thinking behind the shrivelling of social housing provision as a major driver of poverty.
Emma Revie: Aim to “put Trussell out of business”
The approach of the Trussell Trust itself to food poverty has evolved considerably since the charity was created in 1997 in response to child destitution in Bulgaria and then in the UK. Their original view that ‘every town should have a food bank’ was consigned to the past in 2018, when CEO Emma Revie said the reverse, that she aimed to “put Trussell out of business” by confronting the causes of poverty.
John: “Food banks create double dependency”
John Saborido, Marketing and Communications Manager and the only full-time member of staff at Bournemouth Foodbank, speaks plainly when he says that ultimately, “food banks create a double dependency, for the users and for the government“, who thinks that thanks to private charitable initiatives, it can wash its hands of the poorest families’ inability to make ends meet. Bournemouth Foodbank has now become one of the 70 Trussell Trust Foodbanks chosen to be part of the Pathfinder programme and John is heading this experimental scheme which involves more developed contact with the media and a deliberate effort to change minds and remove the stigma around food banks. The other initiative taken by the Trussell Trust at national level is a new campaign, ‘Guarantee our Essentials’, launched in February 2023 in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, calling on the UK government to enshrine in law the amount people need to ensure the basic rate of Universal Credit at least covers the essentials. One upside of the Trussell Trust having grown so large is that it can now use its clout to campaign for longer-term, upstream solutions. While employment conditions such as zero-hour contracts and the minimum wage are not part of the ‘Guarantee our Essentials’ campaign (yet), John is clear that these are also some of the reasons behind food poverty. Here again, in common with many of his colleagues, John takes the pragmatic view that ‘food banks are not the solution but we’ll be here while things change’.
Sue: It’s like “giving vitamin C to a cancer patient”
Sue West, Community Hub Manager at Citygate, doesn’t mince her words:
“Distributing food parcels to a person on a low income is like giving vitamin C to a cancer patient”.
She is at the forefront of the Citygate Hub operation, coordinating not only the food bank but also agencies such as Community Money Advice (a debt advice charity) and Citizens Advice Bureau who come and offer support to those in difficulty. She is passionate about tackling the root causes of poverty. What she observes in particular is how insecurity around housing can tip even working households into poverty. The problem is that social housing, in Bournemouth as in many other parts of the country, can be almost impossible to access and for those who have been evicted, the prospects are poor. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council appears overwhelmed by demand for help from people in a housing crisis and emergency accommodation is often inappropriate for families.
The other issue that Sue has witnessed first-hand is the de facto link between the need to use a food bank and mental health problems. Nine out of ten service users in Citygate’s own survey, she told me, reported mental health problems (while saying they felt safe and welcome when visiting the food bank) and interviews conducted independently by Bournemouth University revealed feelings of trauma, loss of dignity and humiliation. The food handout model has a negative impact on the mental health of users but also, indirectly, of volunteers, staff and managers at food banks and mental health services are difficult to access, with long waiting lists. The link between food handouts and mental health is of course something the government will gloss over, as this model, largely funded by private and corporate donations, suits them, so much so that they have actually started topping up funds by giving public money to food charities.
Ultimately, Sue, just like her colleagues, is convinced that the answer is political, since the root causes are inadequate Universal Credit, lack of a living wage and too many zero-hour contracts. This is why she isn’t the only one to be irritated by comments such as those made by Jacob Rees-Mogg when he declared in 2017 that:
‘To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are… Inevitably, the state can’t do everything, so I think that there is good within food banks.’
Firefighting without addressing the causes of the fire
All those I spoke to at Bournemouth Foodbank are aware that distributing food parcels to people who cannot afford the basics amounts to firefighting without addressing the causes of the fire, and that ultimately the answer to poverty is political. As a charity, the Trussell Trust and their employees cannot be seen to be partisan but they are still clear that the answer lies in a change of policies that doesn’t seem to be a priority for the present government.
The issue can get pushed further up the political agenda, though, with the help of campaigners and elected representatives such as Millie Earl, LibDem Councillor and actively involved with Bournemouth Foodbank, who says
“It’s an embarrassment that in the sixth largest global economy people are going hungry. But change is possible and, over the next few years, we’ll be campaigning for reforms to social security, better support for those facing destitution and accountability from those in power at a local and national level”.