Food Distribution

3800% increase in the use of Food Banks in the East Midlands in 3 years.

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The meteoric rise in the availability of food via Food Banks is a story of many dimensions. In one respect it is a modern day tragedy that anyone in the UK feels the need to “beg” for food – for that is what it is tantamount to. It suggests that an individual’s personal financial situation is at such a dire level that the basic commodity of existence cannot be afforded. Another dimension pays a great tribute to the many members of the public who donate food showing a heart-warming humanitarian side. Although there are schemes which reclaim unwanted/unsaleable produce through the supermarket network, the vast majority of food is from personal contributions. The final dimension is that this activity potentially represents a mirror to the Government as to the consequences of its Welfare Reform policies – although this is hotly contested by them

There is no universal data available about Food Banks throughout the UK and so the subject remains controversial and one’s viewpoint will depend on a personal political agenda.

A focussed survey was commissioned by the Derby Citzens Advice and Law Centre which looked at the vouchers issued, by itself, from February to September 2013. Vouchers they issue are available for use only at the Hope Food Bank. The conclusions of the report are interesting, and provide guidance, but are not statistically significant.

In short,
– 52% of the vouchers were issued because of either Job Centre Benefit Delays (31%), or Sanctions (21%). It was recognized that some individual cases may float between these 2 categories.
– 11% was because of Benefit refusal ( principally failed Employment and Support Allowance claims )
– 10% was because of Debt recovery through the Job Centre Plus ( priority creditors can recover overdue amounts through benefit deduction)
– 17% – variety of other smaller reasons

There is a lot of anecdote around how significant the rise in sanctions is on the use of Food Banks. The Department of Work and Pensions statistics for Adverse decisions for Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) was approx. 55,000 per month in 2011, increasing to 68,000 in 2012, and again to 73,000 in 2013. A 32% increase over that 3 year period. The sanction period can be from 4 weeks upwards for JSA.

The Trussell Trust statistics for the same period showed that approx. 129,000 people used one of their Food Banks in the year to March 2012, 347,000 in the year to March 2013, and 913,000 in the year to March 2014. A 700% increase over that 3 year period. It’s not clear whether this relates to different people, or visits which could include the same people on different occasions.

People would also have been affected by other welfare reforms, e.g. “Bedroom Tax” which could easily be another tipping point. On the expense side whilst general inflation has been low, the increases in Fuel costs has been above that level and may well be another contributing factor.
From the Trussell Trust statistics the 3 year figures 2012/13/14 for the East Midlands are 990, 10742, and 37756, a 3800% increase! Whilst I don’t doubt the Trussell Trust numbers, I find it hard to believe that all of this is attributable to Government welfare reforms. In the same way that new motorways can increase traffic without there necessarily being a surge in the actual numbers of cars, there must be a supply side effect on the Food Bank usage statistics.

I know that many organisations do not like to give food out without there being some commitment, by the individual, to be part of a counselling session that helps that person make the appropriate steps forwards. I would question whether the busy referring agencies default to giving a food voucher without really assessing whether the claimants personal circumstances are at such a crisis point that there are simply no other short term alternatives – e.g. cigarettes, alcohol, TV subscriptions. Perhaps in the past people would have made those sacrifices, before seeking help – now options exist that avoid that necessity. I wonder whether they represent a temporary expedience in some cases.

The problem is a complex one, and all that the Food Banks know is that more and more people are drawing on their service. The Welfare Reforms, sanctions targets, and pressures to minimize benefits payments, fuel costs are certainly a major factor. But it almost seems taboo to suggest that there may in fact be a Food Bank “culture” that is also responsible for fuelling their usage. Such a possibility cannot be ignored.

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