Why is 21st century Britain plagued with the very Dickensian problem of food poverty?
Whenever a headline appears about the rising reliance on foodbanks, there’s a part of me that half-expects Ebenezer Scrooge to stalk into view and publically denounce their existence. Rather unintentionally, I have somehow managed to tangle up the idea of foodbanks with a poor side story of a Charles Dickens novel. The air is laden with heavy smog and it’s the colour of ash; there’s a constant coughing coming from somewhere and several grown men stand hunched on a murky corner and discuss dishonest plans. The sun casts a mottled, sewage-brown light across the scene as a street urchin, clad in torn robes with dirt smeared across his cheeks, limps down a cobbled side road to a battered door. He’s pulled in by arms attached to an unknown body and the room inside echoes with the sounds of tin plates and cutlery clattering against scrubbed wooden table tops as a sea of hungry, desolate children wearing careworn smiles tuck into dinner at the foodbank.
But foodbanks are not the setting for an unwritten Victorian novel- they are a very real twenty first century problem.
Something has gone very wrong somewhere. Why do I view it like a piece of classic fiction? Is the Dickensian concept too difficult to align with today’s mass-consumption society? Or Am I out of touch? Are the walls of my palace built too high, are the arrow-slit windows of my castle too thin? With what blind eyes I see the world.
Foodbanks are often viewed through Daily-Mail-tinted glasses and I wonder if that’s where their murky reputation comes from; they are not used solely by iPhone-touting, Sky-TV-watching benefits cheats, they are not there for lazy layabouts who can’t make it to the supermarket, they are not just for teenage mums who never learnt to budget, and they are not the start of the plague signalling the end of the world. They’re a real concern and more and more people are finding themselves reliant on them.
The economic downturn has seen usage rates rise. 13 million people are estimated to live below the poverty line in the UK, and whilst the phrase ‘food poverty’ seems synonymous with drought-ridden deserts, dirty water and famine, it’s defined by Tim Lang as, ‘the inability to obtain healthy, affordable food’. A quick trip around the supermarkets will support this sort of thinking; the unhealthy, processed, additive-laden foods are the cheapest, and the healthy foods- the fresh vegetables, the lean meats- are the more costly items. As food prices rise, and wages stay stagnant, it is no surprise that the statistics are so shocking.
Ten years ago, the numbers of people using the service provided by foodbanks was just 2,814. Today there are currently over 420 foodbanks in the UK and in 2014-15 foodbanks fed 1,084,604 people nationwide. (There’s about 64million people in the UK, so that’s about 1 in every 59 who require assistance.)
The Trussell Trust are the company who run most of the foodbanks. They do not provide handouts, but offer emergency food for UK people in crisis. Their website outlines the process as such; volunteers at foodbanks collect and store non-perishable, in-date food, mostly coming from donations. Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, and police identify people in crisis and issue them with a foodbank voucher. They take their voucher to a foodbank and exchange it for a box containing three days’ worth of nutritionally balanced, non-perishable emergency food.
Foodbanks help a variety of people in different circumstances. The Trussell Trust believe that only 3% of users are referred from Job Centres, 4% seek the services of a foodbank due to homelessness, 18% due to low income, 19% due to benefits changes, and 34% use the services due to benefit delays. Other reasons include redundancy, sickness, domestic violence, debt, refused loans, and unemployment. The additional costs of heating during the winter months may also see more people having to turn to the foodbank.
Benefit sanctions are cited as the largest cause. These are when normal benefits are reduced or stopped if you don’t do something you’ve agreed to do; the Money Advice Service claims that the most common reasons for having benefits sanctioned are not turning up to a meeting at the Job Centre, not doing enough to look for work, and not taking part in an employment or training scheme. In circumstances such as these, tight budgets are squeezed even further. If the week ends with counting pennies and there’s an unexpected drop in income, some are forced to turn to the foodbanks for help to feed their family.
So the foodbank model is faultless, it seems. You have to be careful in critiquing foodbanks for fear of being deemed ‘too right wing’. Lord Freud, a conservative politician and the Ebenezer Scrooge character to our foodbank plight, was criticised for his comments on the topic: “It is difficult to know which came first, the supply or the demand. Food from a foodbank – the supply – is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.” But it is not the case that the usage of foodbanks has risen on the basis that awareness has increased. Media coverage has not been a form of advertising- people have not suddenly started using their facilities because they have only recently found about them, it is because there is more welfare cuts, more benefit sanctions, and a lack of wage rises.
Former Tory Health Minister Edwina Currie was reprimanded for comparing the food parcels to giving money to beggars: “Free food subsides low wages. It pauperises those it seeks to help. Like giving money to ‘homeless’ beggars on London streets, it encourages more of what it seeks to relieve.” But there is a focus on preventing dependency; users cannot turn up and expect a food parcel, they must be given an emergency voucher, and they can only redeem three consecutive vouchers. There are courses and counselling sessions to help with budgeting, job seeking, and healthy eating. Foodbanks are not the problem; the reason behind the foodbanks is.
But is the problem as extensive as we’re being led to believe, or are the media being too hyperbolic (as always)? Foodbanks and benefit sanctions are a perfect opportunity to rip a chunk from our conservative Government and berate the rich toffs and their tax breaks (how many of the news corporations are owned by rich toffs and their tax breaks, of course?) and as always, it is we middle class that feels like the targeted party. How can we possibly stand by and let our fellow countrymen starve?!
There are plenty that criticise the Government for their disinterest in finding a solution. But as it becomes more difficult to ignore, will they take a proactive approach to sort out the problems? Already, they’ve instigated the living wage in the hopes it will increase disposable incomes for working families. That’s one step in the right direction, at least. But if that’s it, if that’s their contribution, and they continue to turn a blind eye to food poverty, it’s nice to have the knowledge that there are so many willing to help each other out. We may live in a society where the poorest members are barely able to put food on the table, but those with look out for those without. There’s a compassion and a shared kindness from people as they buy extra tins of food during their weekly shop and drop it into the collection baskets.
Foodbanks do seem like classic novel fodder; the poverty, the class divide, and the endearing characters whose plight you pity, exploring the unknown depths of the food bank underworld, identifying the cause, and exposing the injustice better than any newspaper or Government report ever could.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens would have written it. Maybe this year, someone else will. But in the meantime, let’s make sure we’re the Freds’ of the story, and not the Ebenezer Scrooges’. ▪