Dr Steve Iafrati
Blog based on recent research on food banks in Wolverhampton carried out jointly by the University of Wolverhampton and Citizens’ Advice Wolverhampton
One of the prevalent aspects of post-recession Britain has been the rise in significance of food banks both in signalling a growing role for the voluntary sector in providing welfare, but also as a stark measure of the persistence of poverty in many neighbourhoods across the country. Significantly, much of the growth in food bank demand has not come from traditional soup kitchen users, but rather from families, people working and those who previously would not have considered using food aid. In this respect, food banks are indicative of a broader trend in the British economy characterised by low wages, precarious employment and growing poverty.
Recent research in Wolverhampton shows a startling increase in the numbers of people in financial difficulties being referred to food banks. The largest food bank in the city has seen the number of registered users double from 5,000 to 10,000 families in the last two years whilst other smaller food banks have seen numbers increase by three, four or even fivefold. For the people using the food banks, they are an essential lifeline that addresses one of the most fundamental human needs. As one interviewee put it, she can afford to feed her children, or heat the house, or buy school uniform; but she could not afford all three.
The interview was indicative of people’s ongoing need for food banks. Rather than being a one-off intervention during times of crisis such as unexpected bills or losing some money, the reality is that food banks are used by most people in an ongoing manner. Most people in the research were regular users and saw no imminent change in their circumstances. This was a view echoed by food bank managers who witnessed patterns of poverty as being a long-term phenomenon amongst their regulars. Looking at interviewees’ experiences of poverty, these were not stereotypical soup kitchen users that might spring to mind when mentioning food banks; most of the people had families, some worked, many had caring responsibilities, and all wanted something better but were finding it difficult to escape poverty.
Whilst it might be easy to identify the role of benefit sanctions in driving people to food banks, the reality seemed to be that those interviewed had a complex range of reasons for going to food banks. Economic factors were often paramount, but they were made worse by lack of support for caring responsibilities, limited housing options, and zero hour contracts among other factors. For this new group of people, there were increasing calls not just for food, but also for bedding, coats, furniture, cookware and other items as poverty increasingly eats into people’s lives. From a social policy perspective, we are witnessing the emergence of a new model of welfare where the government does less and the voluntary sector is filling the gaps with no financial support. Whilst previous government ministers have praised food banks for their community response in times of crisis, the reality is an indictment of one of the richest economies in the world that cannot feed its own people.
Most worrying however is the emergence of a new problem where demand for food banks is starting to exceed supply of food and capacity. There are increasing examples of food banks turning people away, others putting blocks on new referrals and passing people on to other food banks that are already struggling with demand. With food banks representing the lowest level of the welfare safety net, it is difficult to imagine where these will find themselves. As expectations grow for food banks to address the increasing outcomes of poverty in the city, there are growing consequences for if they fail. However, many food banks operate out of the goodness and commitment of a small group of people who are increasingly stretched and facing more and more demands for service. Should any of the food banks in Wolverhampton fail, the knock on effects could be very significant for welfare in the city. Without the food banks, not only would many people be going without food, the city would also see an increase in payday loans, debt, begging and maybe even shop lifting.
Looking to the future, the outlook currently appears fairly bleak. Government data shows the West Midlands having one of smallest economies in the country as well as some of the lowest levels of economic growth, which means that it is unlikely that poverty is going to be addressed through economic growth. Similarly, we are unlikely to see a shift away from cuts in welfare and the introduction of Universal Credit in Wolverhampton (8th February) could well exacerbate food bank demand. This seems to be the right time for food banks, the council and other service providers to sit down and start planning how food banks can be supported and, ultimately, how demand for food banks can be reduced.