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Food banks aren’t solving problems — they can make things worse too

28 January 2014

This article was corrected. Originally it stated that ‘This tiny organisation doesn’t run a single food bank – it merely advises church and community groups on how to’. But the copy has been changed to reflect the reality of the Trust’s work. The Trussell Trust has responded here.

The Trussell Trust is having a field day. This tiny organisation which runs a food bank in Salisbury and advises and supports a network of over 400 food banks nationwide says there has been a 170% increase in people using food banks in the last 12 months. Of course; that’s because there are more food banks. As anyone with their wits about them can grasp, if you increase the free supply of something worth having, you’ll have takers queuing at the door.

Food bank usage is being equated to poverty. The data are being used as a stick to beat the government, often by well-meaning groups who want to ‘do something’ to help. In reality, they may be perpetuating the problems that brought people to their doorstep in the first place.

The users seem to me to fall into three categories:

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1. People with long-term issues, such as addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. They would struggle in prosperity and recession; services for them are frequently atrocious, with long waiting lists. When councils start diverting money from health programmes into food banks, I despair; that’s a total dereliction of duty. Manchester, for example, is spending over £240,000 this year. It’d be better spent on addiction clinics.

2. People with short-term problems, such as debt, or the benefits haven’t arrived. The food bank is for emergencies only, claim operators. In Canada, they thought that over 25 years ago, and now there’s a lot of soul-searching about their role in maintaining people in a hand-to-mouth existence instead of confronting failure and helping them change course. How often do the same faces reappear, claiming their tin of soup?

3. People who are not poor. Benefits levels can be substantial, far more than they might earn, so it’s a rational choice to stay on benefits, and to get the free food. As Fraser Nelson has urged, it’s up to government to tackle this perverse incentive, but easier to say than do. But kindly food bank operators rarely have the resources to visit recipients at home. One imagines they would get as incensed as I do at the well-fed dogs, the obligatory wide-screen TVs, the satellite dishes, the manicures and mobiles – and the car parked outside…Desperate? No, not all of them.

Free food subsidises low wages; it helps support the black economy. 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.

The food banks can have pernicious effects on the local economy. Some Liverpool streets where I grew up have betting shops and pawnbrokers, but no food store. There’s no need for one, if enough local residents get their groceries free. But the closure of a corner shop affects everyone, including those who don’t qualify for the food bank.

The permanent solution to poverty is to raise productivity levels, so that employers can pay more and still survive. That means better education, apprenticeships, and a powerful work ethic, like my immigrant grandparents brought a century ago. It does not come in a food parcel, however much love and compassion comes with it.

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Show comments
  • Lloyd Adam Cofagen

    What a horrid,vile article – I despise how anyone who criticises the Current Government is either branded ‘a leftie’ or is ridiculed. Iain Duncan smith is a vile , odious man who has no qualifications to be in charge of anything.Its not a case of ‘left’ or ‘right’ , ‘true’ or ‘false’ – poltics and life is not some childish binary argument.The current government are cartoon clueless idiotic scum who need to be tried in court for their crimes against the british public. A right wing thinker like the US intellectual/Economist Thomas Sowell (a man who has hard earned qualifications and the author of many great books) is a great example to follow in conservative thinking, alas , in the Uk presently we have Bullingdon Boy crooks peddling their pathetic rhetoric and lies perpetuating cartoon archetypes where labour voters are all leftist marxist worshippers…The fact is IDS has commited genocide on the poor and has made a multi-million pound mess of welfare – He needs to be tried in a court of law. An article that bitches about food banks and the work the people running them do – grow up!

  • Eric Jarvis

    Enjoy your fantasy universe Ms Currie. However could you stop sending messages to Planet Earth about how things are there, because we have plenty to deal with here.

  • Aphorisms & Musings

    What does she mean by “well fed dogs”.. the recipients themselves of their pets ?

  • mancmanomyst

    “Of course; that’s because there are more food banks. As anyone with their wits about them can grasp, if you increase the free supply of something worth having, you’ll have takers queuing at the door.”

    Edwina, you lost me at the first paragraph with your ignorance of the laws of supply and demand. Supply increases to match demand not the other way round. There are plenty of businesses that have tried to expand too rapidly despite a lack of demand and have folded as a result. Woolworths, for example expanded their offering with Big W stores and this was the the beginning of their demise.

    You got all your facts wrong, it was an opinion piece based purely on ignorance. Perhaps you should offer to volunteer for a week working at one of the food banks and speak to the people that use these services and the staff, then you can come back and write an informed and educated piece instead of being the mouthpiece of gossip and propaganda.

    As a woman in a position of political persuasion it’s irresponsible of you to make judgements on a subject you clearly have no understanding about, but it’s not surprising considering your background of making such sound bites in an attempt to gain yourself publicity. You’re no better than any of the other so called celebrities pulling desperate stunts in order to make people listen!

  • Kim

    Maybe when this lady has actually worked in a food bank (as I do every week), she would realise what a complete load of twaddle she’s talking. Children are going hungry in todays’ Britain, (A Britain she helped to shape I might add). And until she tries to counsel a mother who has to make a choice as to whether to feed her kids or keep them warm I’d advise her to stop talking about something she has absolutely no idea about.

  • debbie

    Edwina, you have been so wrong about so many things during your life and you are wrong yet again regarding what The Trussell Trust do. You are very silly talking about something of which you know nothing. Go away. Our poor, disadvantaged and desperate community don’t want or need you.

  • Martin

    There is no doubt that we call poverty now is nothing like the poverty of say the 50s and 60s. You could argue that the benefits these days are very generous when compared to decades gone by but we did not have food banks in decades gone by and it seems to me that there was no need for them. Therefore EC’s comments are valid. So what did we do before food banks when poverty was arguably worse? What are the figures. Discussions like this need evidence rather than the emotionally charged rhetoric above.

    • mancmanomyst

      “So what did we do before food banks when poverty was arguably worse? ”

      Martin, we starved or we stole food. You think that’s better?

  • Jean Hardiman Smith

    Local to me a woman with terminal cancer was refused one benefit, as now unable to work, but told it would take 6 months to process her other benefit, even urgently. She was left penniless, lost her home, and was sleeping on a friends couch. She was told she had 4 months to live. The friend, with severe mental health difficulties, was sanctioned for being late for a DWP interview, so he had no money to pay for food or rent, and the woman took him along to the foodbank. Neither had eaten for days. The foodbank people were horrified and got them both in the system and fed. she died two weeks later. How can we allow this to happen? Under Mrs Thatcher my husband had to give up his work (consultant working all over the country) as I became paralized..2 year waiting list for the operation to help (not cure). Hubby was told he couldn’t claim benefits as he had been self employed,even though he was made to pay the employees stamp too. Luckily he had been well paid, but we had to live off our savings. As soon as I had the operation, and was able to care for myself just a little, he took a night job, so he could get me into bed, and get me up in the morning. It left us with a big legacy of debt, and a mountain of worry. If my husband had a less well paying job, and we had no savings back up, we would simply have starved? Nobody is immune from this sort of crisis. You simply don’t hear from the voiceless decent poor.

  • WotIThink

    Dear Edwina,,
    Please read “The lies we tell ourselves:ending comfortable myths about poverty” a report from the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church.
    In fact everyone read it.

  • swiftly & with style

    Edwina , are you a Major user of food banks & is it true that John likes a good Currie ( Curry ) ?

  • Taminavalu

    Under Labour standards in schools sky rocketed. People are far better educated. Employers are inept.

  • Bill

    As a Canadian operating a food bank in Canada, I’ve seen this same discussion before. Are we just enabling people is often the question I get.

    From my experience of many years with food banks, the majority of food bank clients I see only “darken” our doors perhaps 3-4 times a year. Just over 25% of households we see on a yearly basis come only once and we never see them again. For the vast majority of clients we are really a temporary help.

    Many Canadian food banks offer other services such as budgeting, job counselling, life style counselling, tax assistance, etc. in addition to providing emergency food aid.

    Certainly, I agree there are many questions that need to be asked about why people need to turn to food banks, and food banks need to be part of the discussion. But as that discussion is taking place, what do we do with those, especially children, who are hungry today? At least food banks are actually doing something right now.

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