The Trussell Trust Food Banks
January? Diets, broken resolutions, tax returns and freezing fog. For many of us it is a fairly rotten month. But what if you also had to worry about how you were going to feed your family? For thirteen million people living below the poverty line in the UK, this is a daily waking worry.
There is a lot of noise being made about food banks, the rapid rise in the number of people using them (more than 1 million emergency food supplies last year*) has become something of a yardstick measure of UK austerity. So where did all of this start?
Salisbury appears to be the Britain’s capital of the ‘shed start up charity’! Can you recall from week 10 Help for Heroes and their humble beginnings in the Tin Hut at Downton? Well the Trussell Trust shares a similar story, this time hatching from a garden shed in Salisbury belonging to husband and wife Carol and Paddy Henderson. The Hendersons had spent some years been focussing on projects to improve conditions for children in Bulgaria, when in 2000 they received a call from a local mother to ask “my children are going to bed hungry tonight – what are YOU going to do about it.” In response the Hendersons set up a food bank in their garden shed, providing three days’ of emergency food to local people in crisis. In 2004 that shed had evolved into the UK food bank network and today the Trussell Trust have 428 food banks and operate over 1,200 distribution centres.
These milestone statistics are of course bittersweet, on the one hand it is fantastic news that the Trussell Trust is able to reach more people but on the other it indicates that the need for emergency food in the UK is growing. In 2015 I challenged myself to live on £1 a day for a month to raise funds and awareness for this charity, my eyes were opened to the issue of food poverty I had previously (and naively) always associated with the third world. I return two years later, to learn more about who needs this food and why? How is it given to them? Who are the people volunteering? Do they create a dependency? And what has changed in the last two years?
There is an unhelpful perception in some quarters that people visiting the Trussell Trust are all scroungers seeking free food, implying that food banks are places filled with rows of grubby victorian orphans dancing anarchically on the tables shouting gleefully ‘more gruel!’. The reality is that food banks help ordinary British people like you or I in genuine crisis. In fact statistics show that one in three families in England are just a month’s pay packet away from losing their homes*** and one in four British parents regularly and secretly skip a meal in order to feed their children.
So how do people come to be at a food bank? Housing charities (like Sanctuary Supported Living) health visitors, schools and social workers identify those in crisis and provide them with a food voucher to be redeemed for three days’ of non perishable food. If an individual turns up without a voucher, the Trussell Trust staff contact local agencies to assess their situation then either provide food and support or guide them to the right services. The average client is referred to a food bank twice and if someone visits more than three times in six months then staff contact their referrer to work on a plan to help that person break out of poverty. It is important to understand that the Trussell Trust also aims to tackle the root cause of poverty and I will return to that point shortly.
So what sort of circumstances am I talking about? I spoke to Lucy and her army of cheery volunteers during a lunchtime session at the food bank in Elim Church, Salisbury. Lucy confirmed that a large proportion of their clients are referred due to problems with the benefits system. Indeed latest figures show that benefits delays and changes to benefits account accounted for 27.4% and 16.07% respectively of all referrals*.
I spent a further afternoon volunteering at a local food bank in Neasden, North London with Abby in the media team and volunteer Benny. I learnt anecdotally of incidents of clients being sanctioned (i.e. their benefits suspended) for being late to job centre appointments due to strikes on public transport. Others have been sent through two appointments in a system error, attending the first and being advised they need not attend the second, only to find themselves subsequently sanctioned. Whilst I want to avoid fuelling the idea of a ‘deserving’ and an ‘undeserving’ poor, these examples are nonetheless illustrative of some of the wholly simple ways in which a person may find themselves in a crisis situation.
Why are sanctions relevant? Well research from Oxford University** released late last year suggests there is a strong correlative link between levels of benefit sanctioning and food bank use. The findings were based in part on Trussell Trust data and add weight to their calls for a ‘yellow card’ non-financial warning system in the wake of the government’s early warning system trial in Scotland. So what about these wider questions? Some people worry that food banks are creating a dependency for people - a short term solution to a longer term problem. So are they merely papering over the cracks?
Shortly after my last visit to the Trussell Trust in January 2015 in the run up to the general election, food banks became something of a political football. Where at one time politicians would not have entertained organisations like the Trussell Trust at the table, now as you have seen their research is feeding into recommendations to help government tackle the underlying causes of food poverty. There has been a notable shift in focus towards building a more co-ordinated and sustainable relationship with the department of work and pensions and department of community and local government. Indeed there was talk earlier this month of piloting a hot line between job centres and food banks in Cambridgeshire to help those in crisis quickly and more effectively.
It is important to understand that the Trussell Trust food banks have not been government funded and will deliberately remain so. This independence allows the charity to maintain its impartiality and give the people they serve a louder voice. Of course the Trussell Trust has little control over what the government does with the information and recommendations it gives and so its fight against UK hunger is double pronged.
The Trussell Trust’s programme ‘More than Food’ seeks to address those deeper issues and reduce dependency on both food banks and state welfare, recognising that hunger is just one consequence of a more complex crisis. The charity’s partnerships with money management charities through its Money Life project help clients tackle their debt and financial difficulties head on and their holiday clubs seek to alleviate hunger and isolation for children during school holidays (where free school meals are not available).
However perhaps two of the charity’s key successes in its increasingly holistic offering have been the Fuel Banks and the ‘Eat Well Spend Less’ program. The former arose as a response to research conducted by Citizens Advice suggesting that one in six homes ‘self-disconnect’ gas or electricity in order to save money. Through the fuel banks those referred to a participating food bank can receive £49 credit to get their power back on within a few hours. The latter ‘Eat Well Spend Less’ basic cookery, nutrition and budget management course was of particular interest to me and I was lucky enough to take part in a class during my week with the charity.
After cooking up some delicious couscous and an epic apple crumble, we all came out out buzzing having learnt two new dishes and swapped tips on how to save. I spoke to Hannah, a project coordinator for the More than Food project who advocates the development of these community hubs providing a range of support in one location to help people break the cycle of poverty.
Hannah’s own story is unique, she was actually a former food bank client herself after graduating in Liverpool she found work but shortly and suddenly made redundant. With rent and bills she was committed to pay and literally no money for food, Hannah was referred to a local food bank. Indeed hers is not an uncommon story and reports suggest one in three families in England are just a month’s pay packet away from losing their homes**. Shortly after her experience Hannah moved down south, began volunteering at the Trussell Trust (as many former clients choose to do) before applying for an internship to help co-ordinate the Barons’ Charter Trail Project. Procuring 50 life sized fibre glass barons, running a competition for artists to decorate them, obtaining sponsorship from organisations, liaising with councils and venues to host them and finally auctioning them off is by no means a simple feat. This remarkable project was all to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carter, bring colour to the streets of Salisbury and Lincoln, encourage people to get outside and of course raise important funds for the Trussell Trust. For that reason and for her remarkable journey and clear ardor for this cause, Hannah is my Inspiration of the Week.
There were many other staff and volunteers during my week with the Trussell Trust whom were equally inspiring and indeed this organisation could simply not function without its volunteers:- kind souls like Andrew, Alan, Henry and the lads in the upcycling furniture centre - sanding, painting and varnishing; Lorna, Sue and Janet and the Monday morning ladies in the warehouses sorting tins, donations and filling packages; Abby, Adrian, Emma and Mia lobbying government; Leanne and her charity shop volunteers steaming clothing and creating displays and finally those like Peter and Benny giving up their time to cook and give out food packages in the food banks each week. This charity’s reach, like the generosity of its staff and volunteers, is enormous.
It is in a large part the Trussel Trust’s people which helps to make its food banks a non-judgemental and more welcoming place. You only have to visit Elim Church in Salisbury or the Oasis Hub in Waterloo (where the food bank is nestled within the local cafe and library) and watch a client’s posture relax as a volunteer offers them a lovingly prepared cuppa, slice of homemade cake and essential supplies, to see the front line impact this charity has.
Despite my earlier slightly facetious allegory to Dickens’ London there is a point to be made about a 2017 Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, where charities like the Trussell Trust are still supporting people facing hunger and poverty. It ought of course to be the ultimate objective of all human services charities to never be needed. However given what we know of statistics, the need for emergency food is unlikely to disappear any time soon. As former Archbishop of Canterbury (and sporter of very tall hats) Rowan Williams put it, people will always need help generally “not because they’re wicked or stupid or lazy, but because circumstances have been against them”. Yet the idea of categorising the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor still unhelpfully pervades the debate. You will have your own views of course but I would ask - who are you or I to decide who deserves to eat and who deserves to starve? In amongst all of this noise, the daily work of the Trussell Trust continues as they fight to support, improve and ultimately empower our society to stop people getting to a stage where they have no money to eat.
P.S. for those wanting to learn more I urge you to watch Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake for an eye opening look into the human side of the welfare system and its relationship with food banks. You can watch the trailer here.
* April - September 2016 https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/mid-year-stats/
** University of Oxford, Sociology working papers number 2016 03 October 2016 The Impact of benefit sanctioning on food insecurity.