New Internationalist

Foodbanks cannot solve poverty

In recent years, so-called foodbanks, which distribute donated food to those in need, have sprung up in Cambridge and across Britain. Half a million people are expected to be using them by 2015. Their main organizer, the Trussell Trust, has been widely praised by politicians and the press, and will soon receive grants from many local authorities.

So why does it make my skin crawl? Because it reeks of the parish poor relief of the Middle Ages, the squalor and smug philanthropy of the Victorians, and the millions tasting Tory austerity in the soup-kitchens of the 1930s. No-one in 21st-century Britain should be lining up for charity handouts to meet their most basic of needs.

You may see foodbanks as a practical way of solving food poverty, or a laudable example of ‘Big Society’ in action. As national and local governments enforce the deepest austerity for a generation, this is exactly what they would like us to believe.

Foodbanks insidiously erode the fundamental principles of modern society: our collective responsibility to support each other by ensuring jobs, income, services and a social security net that protect us from misery. They mark a dangerous regression from food-as-right to food-as-charity. The shift strips those in need of their standing as equal citizens. Responsibility for survival itself is flung out to charity volunteers, who solicit passers-by at supermarkets on their behalf.  The poor become beggars-once-removed, to whom we have no obligation beyond token gifts of pity-pasta.

As the Guardian asked, who likes their groceries served with pity? No amount of cake and chit-chat at foodbanks can stop it being ‘ultimately a humiliating and degrading experience’ for clients, as researcher Hannah Lambie reported following interviews in Coventry.  

Whatever happened to the Conservative mantra, a ‘hand up, not a handout’? Foodbanks frame inadequate food as the problem, and a problem solved. They stop us thinking about and tackling the causes of poverty itself, from pathetic wages to mass unemployment to a ‘safety net’ ridden with holes. These are the reasons even working families are queuing for food boxes in ever-greater numbers. By alleviating the clearest symptom and ignoring the sickness, foodbanks give politicians the all-too-easy excuse to look the other way.

Imagine the outcry if it was the sick who had been left with no choice but to queue for voluntary sector ‘health banks’. Foodbanks are already normalizing poverty in Britain, much as we have normalized homelessness on our streets. Poverty risks becoming a sad fact of life, not a scandal demanding change. Thirty-seven million people receive food aid unnoticed in the US today – we have to kill our own cancer now and at its root.

Foodbanks also fall short in what limited relief they offer. Clients’ dinners are chosen for them, and chosen over key non-food items like water or heating. Patronising and occasionally unhelpful, it is also unreliable on at least three counts.

One, the whole operation – finances, food stock and staff – both hinges on and fluctuates with the whims of donors and volunteers. ‘A lot want to help out, but a lot do it for a while and disappear,’ admitted one Cambridge volunteer. Two, the ever-increasing number of agencies distributing food vouchers to potential clients make demand unpredictable. Foodbanks thus risk being overwhelmed and having to turn people away, as in Coventry in 2011. Finally, maintaining quality is difficult in a decentralized, church-led network of volunteers.

Many of these problems could be solved through a more professional and joined-up national system. But the Trussell Trust can’t do this. Their aim is to help local, Christian communities relieve hunger, not relieving hunger per se – an important difference. It is precisely the localized model that allows and inspires so many Christian volunteers to live out their social mission.

Of course, we should not let people starve. I’ve seen the Cambridge foodbank’s admirable work alleviating hunger in our city. But as a societal response to poverty, foodbanks are fundamentally unjust, undignified, unreliable and ultimately ineffective. By all means help your local foodbank, but recognize it as a necessary evil, and refuse to accept the evil that makes it necessary. Poverty is a national disgrace that demands political change, not charitable pity. 

Tom Belger is a student in Cambridge. He has written for various student papers, for spiked magazine and for the Huffington Post.

Photo: US Dept of Agriculture under a CC Licence

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  1. #1 Elspeth Parris 09 May 13

    Foodbanks are excellent for what they were intended for - an immediate solution to a short term problem (ie 3 days very basic food provided. They are not a solution to the general problem of people needing enough money to live on. That is partly because the quality/choice of food is severely limited and partly because people do actually NEED cash to pay the enormous cash outgoings that any household has these days. Note that for many, more than half their outgoings (excluding rent) is in cash payments leaving very little available for food anyway. The other reasons in the article are, of course, also applicable.

  2. #2 Molly Hodson 10 May 13

    A foodbank in Scotland recently gave emergency food to a family who had been hit by two redundancies and a problem with benefits. The mother had to stop breastfeeding her baby because she was too malnourished. She was referred to the foodbank. She said:

    “It was just such a relief to finally speak to someone who cared and genuinely wanted to help.The emotional support that we’ve received [at the foodbank] is almost as good as the food. When Aiden [her son] came home from school and saw all the food in the kitchen cupboards he couldn’t believe it. They’ve helped give us hope.”

    Without a foodbank this family would have gone hungry. And in places where there are no foodbanks, they would have done just that: gone without food.

    Whilst your interest in seeing an end to food poverty is commendable, to suggest that The Trussell Trust (and other foodbanks) do not share this goal is insulting and wholly inaccurate. The Trussell Trust has sought from the start to provide emergency food in a dignified manner to people who are facing hunger and to raise awareness of the reality of UK food poverty so that policy makers across all parties are aware of the depth of the problem and can create policies to tackle it. The Trussell Trust has made an undeniable and significant contribution to raising public and political awareness of food poverty in the UK.

    The Trussell Trust deliberately designed a foodbank model for the UK which has dignity at its heart: people do not queue up for food, they are greeted by volunteers and welcomed into a cafe, many people tell us that it's the first place they've come to where they have been truly listened to and not treated as a number. As well as providing food people are also signposted to other agencies able to help resolve the underlying cause of the crisis. The food parcels people receive are nutritionally balanced and were designed by a dietician.

    Foodbanks are not an alternative to the welfare state, and they should not replace it, what they are is a place for people who slip through the net. Without them people go hungry. The Trussell Trust's vision is 'a foodbank in every town creating a nation where no-one goes hungry' - why in every town? Not because we fear redundancy (really?!) but because we know that there will always be people who slip through the net. Do we want to see fewer people coming to foodbanks? Yes. We will continue to be deliberately vocal about the unacceptable reality of UK food poverty and the problems that cause it so that more can be done to tackle the roots of the problem. This is a core part of what we do.

    A few final points:

    You state that foodbanks will soon receive grants from local authorities? The Trussell Trust has advised our foodbanks not to enter into contractual agreements with local authorities.

    Trussell Trust foodbanks follow a well designed, well tested model and each foodbank is audited to make sure it is providing a quality service.

    Foodbanks not only prevent short term hunger, but their timely intervention in a crisis have been proven to prevent housing loss, mental health breakdown, family breakdown and crime.

    Trussell Trust foodbanks provide emergency food to people of all backgrounds and beliefs or none. They exist to tackle UK hunger full stop, not just hunger within the Christian community.

    Whether you like foodbanks or not, the harsh reality is that people will go hungry in the UK tonight, and foodbanks are doing something to stop that.

    Your allegations are inaccurate about the Trussell Trust and our foodbanks, we'd be happy to talk to you if you have any further questions: [email protected]

  3. #3 Pat 30 May 13

    So, if I've got this right, food-banks are wrong because they support smug people trying to feel some righteous social justice and that the don't want to truly tackle poverty.


    They're not counting on FoodBanks alone to stop it! They're people trying to help their neighbors, they offer a stop gap and practical solution to an ever growing problem while many, many of the volunteers and those working in the banks struggle to fight against the national poverty. They except its a necessary evil!

    I'm a member of a union and our local branch is working with local community and religious groups to set up food and fuel banks, not out of some Victorian smugness but because its want needed now while we work long time to fight against austerity and create political change.

    Yet another Cambridge student that will never know what its like to go hungry but dreams of playing revolutionary, all the while hating any community or working class grass roots programs.

  4. #4 Author 01 Jun 13

    What makes you so certain that foodbanks will not be as entrenched as they have become in Canada and the USA, not least when they are under the leadership of a Trust who proclaim foodbanks provide 'dignity' and stress the importance of 'doing' christianity in their everyday lives, and when we are in an era of austerity under a conservative government? Look at the article below.

    The national foodbank organisation was set up by two former professionals from the UN feeding programme, not at 'grassroots' level. the foodbank in Cambridge didn't seem to be a 'working-class programme'.
    Perhaps if they were run by people like those who use them, the Victorian/patronising/pity element or risk wouldn't be there. I don't know.

    The question is whether people being fed tonight means they will go hungry tomorrow, the following week, the following year, because their three annual vouchers - three - have expired, because their local foodbank can't/won't bend the rules any more, because their local foodbank has run out of food, because they're too poor to get to the foodbank, because they're too ashamed to do so, because politicians think foodbanks are solving the problem, because thousands of voters and volunteers give food and money and time and energy to foodbanks rather than the unions, parties, petitions, organisations that can push for the jobs, wages, welfare etc that actually tackle poverty.

    'Curiously, this rather wonderful protest song (above) is not sung by impatient young Marxists, but wise old mainstays of the community in Sudbury, Ontario. The ’big society’, if you like. For years they have been volunteers at the local food banks. And they've had enough.

    In fact, though they express themselves politely, they are furious. Alf Judd, the director of operations at Georgina Community Food Pantry, explained their frustration:

    I began volunteering with the food bank in 1990 thinking I would do this for a couple of years; here I am 22 years later.'

  5. #5 Nikki_NationalSocialServices 23 Aug 13

    I agree with Elspeth, food banks are excellent. I admire their intentions to help people in need and to serve without asking for an exchange.

    On the other hand, I believe that we can end poverty by investing in our own solution. And one way or one key to end ignorance and poverty is education. Yes, hunger, poverty, ignorance are interconnected with each other and the very solution to these problems is education.

    Anyway, a <a href=’’ title=’nonprofit directory’>nonprofit directory</a> in the US is extending their help to those people who are looking for food banks in their community.

  6. #6 Karen Williams 12 Jul 14

    Well said! Get it said everywhere, as often as you can. Thanks.

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