The Foodbank debate is over-politicised. Important and nuanced issues which are raised about food poverty are often overlooked. There are three things it is crucial we don’t ignore from this morning’s report by the All Party Group on Hunger and Food Poverty.
First, Britain has enough food to go around and more can be done to use it. There is plenty of food which is thrown away by the UK food industry every year – 4.3 million tonnes to be precise. Yet, shockingly, just two per cent of edible waste is given to charities such as Foodbanks. The rest is disposed in landfills. If that is not concerning enough, the Government is currently subsidising this waste disposal. Instead we must incentivise supermarkets to give to the poor. This scandal needs to be addressed with urgency.
Second, this report reminds us of the thousands of inspirational volunteers who give up their weekends to serve their neighbours. It is their compassion and sacrifice that has led to hundreds of thousands of people being given emergency food. Their efforts should be applauded and encouraged, not demeaned by party political positioning.
It is also crucial that this grassroots movement is not taken for granted or consumed by the state. The report calls for far greater involvement by no less than eight different Government departments. We must ensure that this phenomenally successful volunteer-led movement is not squashed by Government process and bureaucracy, but that it remains led by the people who have the passion to keep it strong.
Third, the report calls for Foodbanks to tackle the root causes of people’s food poverty. They suggest the creation of ‘Foodbank Plus’ where clients would not just receive emergency food, but also help to ensure they do not need to come back. This is a great idea. To some extent it is happening already. I volunteer at a Foodbank where a Jobcentre Plus Advisor comes and supports clients with benefit claims and to find employment. We also signpost to other services, such as debt advisors, to help people deal with the causes of their poverty. This is incredibly important because although the Foodbank Movement is remarkable, it is not enough by itself.
There are many reasons why people are in food poverty. They include mishandled benefit claims, addiction, sudden loss of employment, family breakdown and debt. Action is needed on every single one of these.
In particular, the report highlights the grave injustice that poorer households pay a premium for basic services such as banking, gas and electricity. This is squeezing incomes and leading many into problem debt – previous CSJ research found that this has contributed towards the doubling of personal debt in a decade. The Trussel Trust (the UK largest Foodbank Provider) found that the primary reason why a fifth of clients visited Foodbanks was due to debt. The Government urgently needs to help foster an affordable alternative-finance market that takes on the Wonga’s of this world, as we recommended in Restoring the Balance.
Politicians should welcome this morning’s report for it delves deeply into the complex reasons for food poverty and comes up with some interesting solutions. Yet Government’s role should be to support not consume the Foodbank Movement. Government focus is needed elsewhere – on ensuring that the root causes of poverty are tackled. For only if they do that can we ensure people do not need to turn to Foodbanks in the first place.