It is sometimes easy to forget that the United Kingdom is the 6th largest economy in the world in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP); and the 3rd largest economy in the European Union, behind France and Germany. In terms of Purchasing Power Parity, the UK is the 8th largest economy on the planet; and along with being the 10th largest exporter in the world, was also the 6th largest importer. London hosts the biggest financial centre anywhere on the globe, alongside New York; and has the largest GDP of any city in Europe. Sterling is the world's third largest reserve currency and the UK is an intrinsic member of the G7, G8, G20, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. So by any measure, nor by any stretch of the imagination, could the United Kingdom be regarded as a minor financial player, a second class economy, or indeed, a third world state; and yet you could be forgiven for thinking that is exactly what we have become, when you realise that food-banks have become and will almost certainly remain a feature of our country's social fabric for many years to come.
Of course food-banks in the United States, with its extremely limited welfare provision, are a commonly accepted part of that country's social system, where private and corporate donations, in the form of both money and goods, are regarded as traditional methods of personal patronage by the "haves" to the "have-nots", the rich to the poor. The first official food-bank in Europe was reportedly established in France in 1984, while the first one in Italy was set up in 1989. Spain's network of food-banks is thought to have helped feed 800,000 during the period 2008-2011, an average of 260,000 people per year, whereas in Belgium, food-banks are said to have helped feed an estimated 120,000 during 2012, 4500 more than in 2011. Even the powerhouse German economy has seen people struggle, with one academic referring to an "explosion" of food-bank use in the country. Other nations that employ food-banks include Australia, Israel, Turkey, Russia, India, Taiwan, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Hong Kong and South Korea, while similar schemes exist throughout Africa and parts of Asia.
Research into the subject of food-banks generally has found that right wing politicians and commentators are generally enthusiastic about the use of such provision, often because it plays into their own political ideologies of small state, minimal intervention and minimum funding being required by the various ruling executives, a view that might well be informing the whole approach of the current Coalition government in the UK. However, academics warn that there is a down side to this political approach, in that removing the provision of foodstuffs from direct political control, inevitably lessens the power of the executive itself, as the population learn to look elsewhere for their sustenance; and then perhaps their other vital daily needs, to the extent that the executive becomes unnecessary or irrelevant?
However, on the whole food-banks are commonly regarded as unsatisfactory models, simply because they rely on an often inefficient and unreliable supply chain, plus not everyone is happy to go "cap-in-hand" to what is after all a privately operated food source, as opposed to a government run one, with the stability of supply and personal confidentiality that such agencies are deemed to offer the user. According to some reports, up to 900,000 Canadians have received help through the country's network of food-banks, soup kitchens and breakfast clubs; and yet it has been suggested that these nearly 1 million users still only represent 20% of the total needing help to feed themselves and their families.
Here in the UK, by far the largest and most notable food-bank network is the Trussel Trust, a Christian charity affiliated to numerous churches throughout the country, which established its first food-bank in Salisbury in 2000; and has recently opened its 400th branch. In addition to the Trussel Trust, another large charitable food supplier is Fare Share, a centralised food distributor that delivers supplies to an estimated 1000 charities, soup kitchens and breakfast clubs throughout the UK. On top of these large scale providers there are estimated to be several hundred individual food-banks carrying out this vital task independently, all of which suggests that there are probably several thousand free food-banks and charitable food distributors operating in modern Britain, if you take into account the hundreds of soup kitchens and breakfast clubs that operate on an almost daily basis in the towns and cities of the UK, often well below the radar of most people.
Obviously collating user numbers from all of the different outlets, the food-banks, soup kitchens and breakfast clubs, etc that help to meet people's nutritional needs around the UK would be very nearly impossible, simply because so many of them exist below the radar that they are largely unknown, or unreported by the various government agencies. It is also worth remembering that the current Coalition government, in common with its Labour predecessor, do not; and have not regarded food-banks as a necessary resource, but rather as something to ignore, or undermine, depending on the individual elected representative's personal view on the matter. In fact, when questioned in Parliament about the apparent explosion in the number of food-banks during the Coalition's term of office, the Social Security Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen to skulk out of the chamber, rather than trying to offer any sort of reasonable explanation to the question. During the same debate, MP's from both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties constantly heckled and derided their Labour opponents, as story upon story was related of everyday British citizens being humiliated, ashamed and driven to despair, at the prospect of having to go to a food-bank to ask for food, necessary supplies, or even basic sanitary products, because for one reason or another, they didn't have a brass penny in their pockets.
Due to the fragmented nature of the UK's charitable food-bank services; and of course a steadfast refusal by central government to accept that any sort of problem exists in the first place, calculating the total numbers of citizens who rely on such food-banks is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, the only sort of statistical evidence has come from the largest single supplier, the Trussel Trust, which has grown from one single outlet in 2000, to around 400 in 2014, but still takes no account of the hundreds of other groups, charities and kitchens that are providing similar services throughout much of the country. However, that having been said, what few figures that do exist are startling in their measure, if only because they illustrate how quickly charitable food-banks have become such an invaluable part of Britain's social safety net; along with how quickly central government have abandoned their role in the very same areas.
In the year 2005/06 Trussel Trust reported that they had helped 2814 people with food parcels, while in the following year, 2006/07, the figure had risen to 9174, a more than three-fold increase on the previous year. In the year 2007/08, the numbers had increased again, to 13849, a little more than a 50% increase on the previous year, but a massive five-fold increase on the numbers collected in 2005/06. In the year 2008/09 the numbers of people being helped by the Trussel Trust had increased to 25899, almost double the 13849 noted in the previous year; and some eight times the figures of those shown three year earlier in 05/06. It is worth noting that 2007/08 marked the start of an escalation in the cost of wholesale food prices on the world markets and in the following year, the start of the worldwide recession, initiated by the sub-prime fiasco in the USA that sent financial shockwaves around the world. As a result, the Trussel Trust's food-bank figures in the UK for the period 2009/10 reflected these crises, with food-bank useage climbing to a staggering 40898, more than 15000 people than in the year before. As a point of interest, the Labour Party has tried to make political capital out of the numbers of people being forced to use food-banks, since the Coalition came into office in May 2010, which are shown in the following paragraph. However, it is worth making the point that during Labour's own term of office, food-bank useage increased from 2814 in 2005/06, to 40898 in 2009/10, without the matter seeming to overly concern the Labour cabinet, or its elected representatives in the least. Why was that one wonders?
Again from the Trussel Trusts own figures. In the year 2010/11 the number of people compelled to use their food-bank services, to offset starvation, were reported to be 61468, a further rise of 20000 on the year before. In the year 2011/12 the total number of requests to Trussel's food-banks had risen to a staggering 128697, more than double the numbers from the year before. In the 12 month period 2012/13 it has been estimated that some 346992 people accessed a Trussel's food-bank, 200000 more than in the previous year long period. Current estimates suggest that in the period 2013/14, the Trust will have been contacted by over 700000 people seeking help with vital foodstuffs; and if that trend were to continue, which it almost certainly will, in the years beyond 2014/15 the Trust expects to be helping UK citizens, not in the tens of thousands, but in their millions, a damning indictment of the way in which our country is moving in terms of social need and state provision of vital services.
Aware of the rising public disquiet over the issue of food-banks and responding to the rather hypocritical charges levelled by Ed Miliband's Labour Party, the Prime Minister David Cameron, along with Nick Clegg, Iain Duncan Smith, Esther McVey and a plethora of other Coalition worthies have come forward to totally refute any suggestion that their government's benefit changes have played a part in the sudden need for, or use of food-banks in the UK, claiming to a man that there is no statistical evidence whatsoever to support the charge that food-banks have arisen because of their government's wilfully imposed austerity measures, which it is proposed will remove £32 billion from the nation's Welfare budget by 2015.
However, first consider that according to Trussel Trust's own figures the principal reason for people using their foodbanks is A) Delays in benefits (29.69%), B) Low incomes (18.45%), C) Benefit changes (14.65%), D) Personal debt (9.52%), E) Other reasons (8.5%), F) Refusal of Crisis Loan (4.29%), G) Unemployment (4.25%) H) Homelessness (4.16%), I) Domestic Violence (2.5%), J) Sickness (0.96%) and K) Delayed Wages (0.82%). Interestingly, where Jobcentres were previously allowed to refer (signpost) claimants to food-banks using a tick-box form that explained their personal predicament to the food-bank (ie: where benefit was delayed, the claimant sanctioned, or their entire claim disallowed, etc,) this explanatory note has now been done away with, thereby preventing food-banks from collating figures from their clients, which begs the question, why?
The reality is that there is no single reason why the use of food-banks has suddenly exploded in the UK, but there are a number of related factors that have come into play around the same time, some or all of which have helped push hundreds of thousands of British people into real food poverty, to the extent that they have no choice but to rely on charitable food-banks. The first factor has been the rising cost of basic foodstuffs on the international markets, caused in part by shortages and higher demand, especially from countries like China, India and elsewhere, that have seen basic prices in the UK rise by 22% between 2007 and 2013. Similarly, international energy costs have risen, resulting in higher prices for consumers, especially those who are struggling to cope on lower incomes to begin with and who tend to feel the effects of price increases more than most. At home, the austerity measures imposed by the Coalition have had a direct impact on people's already limited incomes; and proposed changes to benefits, with new restrictions, reassessments and sanctions have all helped to create a climate of fear, confusion and discrimination.
Even though the Coalition strongly refute the charge that their welfare benefit changes are the root cause of increased food-bank useage, to a significant degree they almost certainly are a major contributory factor. According to their own figures from the Department of Work and Pensions, in 2001 (during Labour's term of office) some 279840 claimants were either sanctioned, or had their claims disallowed, a figure that subsequently ballooned to 684030 in 2010, implying that many of these claimants would have been forced to look elsewhere for help, including food-banks, family and friends. In 2011, the first full year of the Coalition government the number of claimants sanctioned or having their claim disallowed was slightly lower, but still totalled some 668000 individuals, a proportion of whom would have been forced to rely on other agencies. However, from January 2012 until October 2012, a period of 10 months, the number of claimants sanctioned totalled 680180, suggesting that the figure for the full 12 months was closer to 800000 people, a proportion of whom would undoubtedly have approached the charitable food-banks for help. Starting in October 2012, a new set of rules were imposed for those claimants on Jobseekers Allowance, which were thought to have caused 580,000 people sanctioned, between October 2012 and June 2013, a period of 9 months, while an additional 11400 ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimants were sanctioned as well. Under the Coalition's new welfare benefit changes, an estimated 1.5 million claims for Disability Living Allowance and ESA will be scrutinised and reassessed by companies such as Atos, with the expectation that around 25%, or some 375000 claimants will be found fit for work; and thus put back on to normal Jobseekers Allowance, with all of the financial repercussions that that will certainly bring. Despite what the Coalition might say, or how much they might protest about being blamed for the rise of the charitable food-bank here in the UK, their ideological strategy of public compliance or starvation will almost certainly ensure that Trussel Trust and the rest of the charitable food-bank infrastructure are here for the long term, or at least for as long as the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties keep getting elected into public office.