The Trussell Trust, the key charity behind the growth of food banks, has recently led a campaign to try to show that welfare reforms are leaving people starving.
The trust states that between April and December last year, around 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food at its banks. If these statistics are true, this means more than 8 per cent of the population have had to resort to charity food hand-outs.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has accused the trust of ‘political messaging’ and told it to ‘stop scare-mongering’, suggesting that the campaign linking welfare reform to food banks is politically-motivated and is not based on facts.
These claims are supported by Robin Aitken, co-founder of Oxford Food Bank, who states that the increasing demand for free hand-outs is not primarily linked to benefit cuts.
In addition, Mr Aitken states: “The whole debate has become hopelessly politicised. Ten years ago there were no food banks, but if you provide a service, people will use it.”
However, these arguments suggest that anyone who wishes to use a food bank and get ‘free hand-outs’ is able, whereas this is simply not the case.
In order to use food banks, applicants must be considered ‘deserving’ by agencies such as doctors’ surgeries, schools, churches, social services, Citizen’s Advice Bureaux and Job Centres, which will provide them with a voucher to swap for food bank hand-outs.
Many have criticised this system and suggest it is too easy for ‘undeserving’ people to obtain vouchers for food banks. Nikki Sanders, mother of five who once received a food voucher from ‘Sure Start’ Nursery when she was in desperate need after benefit delays, realised others were routinely obtaining vouchers despite having enough money for nights out.
Miss Sanders states: “Come Monday, they have no money left. Then they just ask the Sure Start nursery staff where they take their kids for vouchers. They just fill out a form and lie. It’s very easy and very cheeky.”
However, The Trussell Trust states that it attempts to prevent abuse of the system by assigning serial numbers to each voucher, making them difficult to copy, and creating a limit of three separate hand-outs, in order to prevent recipients from becoming dependent on food banks.
Despite this, nothing prevents recipients from going to different accredited voucher ‘agencies’, using different addresses and different stories in order to obtain vouchers.
Whilst there are problems with the system, and food banks did not begin as a result of welfare cuts, there is no doubt that these services are desperately needed by thousands of people in the UK.
The Conservatives have criticised food banks for exaggerating figures, and food policy experts at the University of Warwick suggest that it is impossible to give accurate figures of food bank usage, however many suggest that welfare reform undoubtedly contributes to these rising numbers.
A food bank manager told The Guardian: “the saddest thing is how many people now come simply because of the bedroom tax. They’ve got jobs and they’ve been coping, but this tipped them over the edge.”
Many other food banks report the common experience of disabled people who have been deemed fit for work using their local food bank, as the reduction in their income has ‘triggered a crisis’.
In addition, many people appeal the decision that they are fit for work, resulting in several months of stress and fees to get their results, reducing their income further.
Benefits being temporarily stopped, and delays in hardship payments due to harsher sanctions, are also listed as a cause of the increase in food bank usage.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently published a report on food poverty, claiming that rising food bank use is a result of real and growing need.
Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust argues that we need a better understanding of why there have been such huge increases in hardship, and has called for an in depth inquiry into the causes of food poverty.
Mr Mould states that they want to see policy makers from all parties facing the realities more openly, with “creative, fresh solutions that go wide enough and deep enough to make the difference that our experience in our food banks tells us is so evidently required.”
It is evident that whilst welfare reforms may play a significant role in the increasing use of food banks, other issues such as the rising cost of food, energy prices, and travel to work, as well as low wages and unemployment, also contribute to the growing numbers in need of food hand-outs.
Whatever the causes of food poverty, this is undeniably a growing problem which must be urgently addressed by policy makers.
For more information on the growth in food banks, please click the following link http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2014/mar/18/dwp-jobcentres-food-banks-gaps
Written by Poppy Reece