Food Bank Britain

There is a new approach to poverty in Britain: starve people out of it.

Illustration by Harry Haysom

When David Clapson’s body was found, a pile of CVs lay next to it, the fridge in which the former soldier kept the insulin for his diabetes was not working. His electricity had been cut off and the only food in his flat was a can of tomato soup, an expired tin of sardines, and six tea bags. His stomach was found to be empty in an autopsy in late July 2013. He had died of an acute lack of insulin a few weeks after the Jobcentre had cut off his benefits for not searching hard enough for work.

A month later, Mark Wood died at home in Oxfordshire, starving to death four months after his benefits were stopped. Wood had multiple mental health problems, and when he lost his supports his doctor wrote to the Jobcentre specifying that Wood was ‘extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever,’ adding ‘please do not stop or reduce his benefits as this will have ongoing, significant impact on his mental health.’ The doctor stated that Wood ‘simply is not well enough to cope with this extra stress. His mental and medical condition is extremely serious.’ The Jobcentre were unable to say at the inquest whether the letter had been received.

A decade ago, the prospect of people starving to death in Britain seemed remote, and barely anyone had heard of food banks operating in the United Kingdom. But in the intervening years they have moved from the margins of our society into everyday life. Last year, the Trussell Trust, the largest organisation of food banks in the UK, gave out 1,332,952 three-day emergency food parcels in the UK, a 13 percent increase on the previous year. In 2013, the trust handed out less than a quarter of the number of parcels it does today. When you look at how many people rely on these services the numbers become even starker. In 2009, the Trussell Trust fed approximately 41,000 people. Last year they helped 666,476 unique users.

And there will be no let-up in this increase: the government’s move towards ‘Universal Credit’, a one-size-fits-all benefit that replaces separate payments for jobseekers, disability benefits, child benefit, and housing benefit has seen a sharp increase in referrals. In areas rolling out Universal Credit, the Trussell Trust saw a 50 percent increase in people referred to their food banks. There will be more David Clapsons and more Mark Woods.

A Political Choice

The boom in food banks began in 2010, as the Tory–Lib Dem coalition drastically cut the bill paid out to people with disabilities, the unemployed, and those who struggled to afford their rent. Everyone claiming benefits was subject to arbitrary sanctions at the whim of staff in ‘Jobcentres’. Turn up late to a weekly interview on your jobseeking activities and you could be sanctioned. Miss an appointment to attend a job interview, likewise. If you had to look after a sick child or relative or were ill yourself, you could suddenly find your payments stopped.

Dozens of people I spoke to told me of the labyrinthine system that had led to their destitution. The letters from the Jobcentre arrived well after the money had failed to hit their account. Attempting to appeal the sanction, or even find out why it had been imposed, meant long hours on hold to a premium rate phone line. Signing on and looking for work when I finished my undergraduate degree, there were plenty of telephones in the Jobcentre. People were all around you calling employers or government agencies, finding jobs, and sorting out problems. After the Tories assumed power, the telephones and computers disappeared. Each Jobcentre had a security guard at the door and only admitted people if they had an appointment slip for a specific time.

The Jobcentre today is not about finding work. It’s about processing people and gatekeeping social security payments. Disabled people are re-evaluated by outsourced staff with no medical training, frequently assessed as being ‘fit for work’, and forced to battle the lengthy appeals process to get their benefits. The government denied targets had been set for a certain number of sanctions per Jobcentre, until a disgruntled staff member leaked a photograph of one such poster berating staff for not stopping enough benefits.

Social security payments in Britain have always been at subsistence level. In this context, stopping housing benefit and weekly payments for living costs hits people hard. You cannot cut back on rent and council tax, and there is only so much energy conservation can do to reduce food bills. Interviewing people about their experience of sanctions and the benefits system, I learnt to bring my own coffee before arriving at homes, insisting on taking my interviewees’ orders while I was in the coffee shop. On arrival, they’d tell me they were terrified I’d expect a cup of tea, a request which would force them to admit that they had no tea bags or milk, and regardless, couldn’t afford to put the kettle on.

The Tories claim the rise in food banks has nothing to do with political decisions or genuine poverty. People go to food banks, they argue, simply because they are there, or because they have budgeted poorly, or because they are taking advantage of free food. No food bank agrees; the Trussell Trust squarely blame benefit cuts for the exponential rise in their usage. Invitations to visit the trust were ignored by ministers. Because the demand is so high, in order to receive a parcel from nearly all food banks, people must be referred by a state agency or service. A friend working for a local council told me four days into July that his council had run out of referral vouchers. Multiple doctors have told me they have far fewer vouchers than they need, and now have to ask people directly when they report symptoms, when they last ate anything, let alone a full meal. In 2015, the NHS reported that cases of malnutrition had risen 50 percent in the years following the start of the austerity programme.

Poverty and Charity

Sitting in a food bank, where visitors are given a hot drink and speak to benefits advisors and volunteers after collecting their parcel, the starkest realisation is how broad the demographics are: visiting twenty different banks in four years, around half of people I spoke to were in work. A nurse told me her landlord had hiked the rent, a police officer had been off work and lost pay due to a slipped disc, multiple people were on zero-hours contracts, and never knew how much work they’d get, if any. Many were struggling to make ends meet on subsistence benefits each week, then suddenly found they’d been sanctioned, or moved onto Universal Credit, and were left with nothing to live on.

The banks are usually set up to resemble a makeshift supermarket. On arrival, you are offered a cup of tea or coffee, and children are given a soft drink and snacks. A volunteer takes people individually through the aisles, asking them what they need in addition to the standard box, substituting items they don’t need, or that children don’t like. Sanitary products and toilet roll are desperately needed. Schools and food banks have warned about the burgeoning ‘period poverty’ problem, with women using rags to save money and girls skipping school because they cannot afford tampons. Toiletries are in high demand as people prioritise spending on food. In 2014, as the food poverty crisis worsened, the trust were forced to create specific parcel types such as the ‘kettle box’, filled with items that could be prepared with boiling water instead of an oven or gas ring, and the ‘cold box’ of food that could be eaten without heating, as more and more people reported that they were unable to afford it.

The situation is especially bleak for children. The Trussell Trust handed out just under half-a-million emergency parcels last year specifically designed for kids. The summer holidays mean a rapid increase in the number of visitors to food banks, as families in receipt of free school meals during term time suddenly have to find the means to provide an extra meal for each child. ‘Holiday hunger’ is prevalent: one in four parents report they have skipped meals so their children won’t do without, mothers report they only eat what their children leave on their plates, consuming well below the recommended daily calorie intake for healthy adults.

The government are not just hoping that food banks fill the gap the state has left: they now expect it. The banks are less a charitable endeavour to alleviate a necessary evil than a fully organised part of civil society. David Cameron’s vision in his first term was of the ‘Big Society’, a concept he launched multiple times in woolly speeches. It argued, essentially, for more charitable volunteering, depicted as a patriotic vision of a more caring community. We now know the reality behind this narrative: the Tories expected volunteers to provide those basic services decimated by harsh austerity cuts and the slashing of funding to local government. Nowhere is this clearer than in food banks. Conservative politicians know that people in their constituencies aren’t eating, and are perfectly willing to let them, expecting private citizens to provide a social safety net when the state has abdicated responsibility. This is Food Bank Britain.

The cruelty of this abdication, facilitated by decades of demonising the poor, is immense. It’s easy to forget that there was once something like a consensus about looking after the sick and disabled, or that there was a time child poverty wasn’t blamed on the parents, or when hunger wasn’t an acceptable form of state discipline. Now the only answer to any of these problems is ‘find work’. Work, even though you’re hungry. And many do. But the jobs no longer pay enough, so they’re working for their poverty. And instead of a path out of a food bank, more and more find themselves back there after an eight-hour shift. The patient gets sicker but still the medicine is applied. This is the new British approach to poverty: starve people out of it.