Earlier this year, the Department for Work and Pension found 8% of families in the UK had experienced food insecurity, rising to 43% of households in receipt of Universal Credit. This means almost half of families in receipt of state support are not getting the food they need.
Meanwhile, in the year since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trussell Trust—the largest network of food banks in the country—distributed a record-breaking 2.5 million emergency food parcels, a 33% increase from the year before. While certainly an acceleration, food bank usage has been rising year-on-year since 2014. Typical of this Tory government, the response to food insecurity is being outsourced.
The relationship between the state and food banks embodies wider shifts in welfare policy, where responsibility for structural failures is increasingly placed on individuals and the third sector. More and more, councils are handing off responsibility to the third sector entirely – as, for example, in Bristol where the mayor claimed the council was taking action on food poverty while passing the responsibility to the charity Feeding Bristol.
The normalisation of food aid as the solution to a complete failure of government has important consequences for the future of the welfare safety net. Labelled the ‘epitome of the Big Society’ by Conservative Home, food banks have become institutionalised in government responses to hunger: when the government can relinquish responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, the foundations of the welfare state are eroded.
Food companies are the other big player in the charitable-industrial-complex that dominates the response to food insecurity. Charities rely on private companies for funding and the food they donate, meaning they are unable to address the root cause of food insecurity. This year, the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union surveyed their members and found 40% of respondents had eaten less than they should have at some point during the pandemic due to a lack of funds. Companies such as McDonalds are using the food charity FareShare to flex their charitable credentials, but the poverty wages in their sector reproduce the conditions that cause their workers to rely on food aid.
The dominance of food banks also has important consequences for our understanding of the scale and nature of food insecurity. There is little data gathered on food insecurity in the UK, and food bank statistics have been used as a poor proxy indicator for the scale of the problem. While the narrative that the rise in food banks is the result of people taking advantage of free food has been debunked, a reliance on their statistics has mystified the nature of food insecurity.
In fact, food bank usage represents the tip of the iceberg, with largely only those experiencing severe food insecurity receiving emergency food parcels. This has implications for policy: by exclusively focusing on acute cases, little attention is paid to the broader structural determinants of food insecurity. When the scale of the problem is underestimated, preventative solutions can be readily ignored in favour of stopgaps.
A common reason that people wait until they are at crisis point to access food banks is the stigma they face. Reliance on food banks creates a two-tier system, separating out those who are able to access food through ‘normal’ means and those who rely on what is left uneaten by the wealthier population. Those who rely on food banks have their agency taken away, with little choice in what they receive. This paternalistic approach, which assumes that a charitable benefactor knows better than the recipient, often leads to people receiving food inappropriate to their needs. By disempowering people, the system reinforces capitalist narratives that poor people are unable to act responsibly and manage their own lives.
If we acknowledge that people are in food insecurity due not to personal failings but as a result of systemic low wages and an insufficient welfare system, then we conclude food banks shouldn’t exist. Rather, food banks are a symbol of our failure to care for people’s needs with the dignity they deserve.
Sociologist Jan Poppendieck wrote of two competing models for tackling food insecurity: the charitable model and the justice model. Food banks, representative of the charitable model, cannot guarantee entitlement and are not accountable to the people who rely on them. Those who use food banks have no recourse to the food they receive; their entitlement is conditional upon a referral by an appropriate agency, and restricted to three emergency parcels in six months.
It is to the justice model we must instead turn, centring ‘dignity, entitlement, accountability and equity’ in our response to food insecurity: put simply, we need a rights-based approach to this problem. The United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contains the right to food, defined as ‘when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement’, and while the UK has ratified the covenant, it has failed to institutionalise the right to food in national legislation. This means the government has no legislative responsibility to guarantee no one goes hungry.
Campaigners across the country are seeking to change this so the government can no longer turn a blind eye to the scourge of food insecurity. Ian Byrne, Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, launched the Right to Food campaign in November 2020, working alongside the national network Fans Supporting Foodbanks. His Early Day Motion has been supported by 59 MPs and as a result of his campaigning, ten cities and towns have passed Right to Food motions. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union are also calling for the right to food to be enshrined in UK law ‘to make food truly accessible, affordable, healthy, safe to eat, and fairly produced by well-paid and protected staff throughout the food sector.’
The role of charity in solutions to food insecurity has been increasing for more than a decade and the response to the Covid-19 pandemic indicates there will not be reversal of this trend; if anything, food charities are likely to become further entrenched in the welfare landscape of the UK. It is imperative we act now and campaign for the government to enshrine the right to food in UK law, guaranteeing everyone has enough food so that food banks no longer have to exist.