The growing demand for food banks in breadline Britain


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More food banks are opening every week in the UK, with charities providing an emergency safety net for growing number of Britons, many of whom have fallen foul of the benefits system.

They say you can tell a poor area by the number of chicken takeaways. By that metric, Coventry, in the West Midlands, has more than its fair share of poverty.

Out of 306,000 people, according to the city council, 59,000 are living on the breadline. And with the UK economy in double-dip recession, the word breadline is starting to mean something literal.

"I've seen families sitting down to eat oven chips and mayonnaise as their main evening meal," says Mary Shine, a Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) caseworker, "and that's people with children, and sometimes with health problems".

There is growing and documented hunger in Britain's poor communities. Unlike the chicken takeaways, and the payday loan stores, you cannot see it. But it is there.

Start Quote

All I've got in the house is rice and some bread”

End Quote Martyne Wilson Foodbank client

Coventry is home to Britain's busiest food bank. Run by the Trussell Trust, it provides three days of good quality food for people who turn up, literally, hungry.

People (and quietly some supermarkets) donate food and it is given out to those referred by agencies dealing with poverty - social services, CABs, youth offending teams or churches.

Most people only use the food bank once or twice, after that the workers try to get them into a programme that addresses the root cause of the problem.

The Trussell Trust is launching new food banks at a rate of three per week.

But why, at a time when unemployment is falling, and house repossessions have never reached catastrophic levels, do we see agencies dealing with hunger?

Funds crisis


  • Milk (UHT or powdered)
  • Sugar (500g)
  • Fruit juice (carton)
  • Soup
  • Pasta sauces
  • Sponge pudding (tinned)
  • Tomatoes (tinned)
  • Cereals
  • Rice pudding (tinned)
  • Tea bags/instant coffee
  • Instant mash potato
  • Rice/pasta
  • Tinned meat/fish
  • Tinned vegetables
  • Tinned fruit
  • Jam
  • Biscuits or snack bar

At the Coventry Foodbank, which operates out of a church called the Hope Centre, Martyne Wilson sits with her two toddlers and a four-week old baby, at her wits' end. What has brought her here?

"Benefit changes. The DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] are just not working fast enough to get my benefit sorted out, and I've been in crisis now for four weeks," she says.

She explains her teenage daughter moved back into the home, simultaneously with the arrival of her new baby, and when she added them to her claim for benefits, it failed. "It's not working out on the computer," she shrugs, giving a perplexed smile.

What does that mean in terms of food?

"It means I haven't got the money to go shopping, I'm just able to cover my bills and not get into debt at the moment," she says. "All I've got in the house is rice and some bread, I haven't got anything else in at all, and if I go to the DWP asking for crisis loans it's landing me in more debt."

"I think I'm hitting like the £900 mark now in debt, because of my benefits being stopped and started and just not knowing where I am with benefits at all."

Benefits 'sanction'

This it turns out is not unusual. The Trussell Trust reckons 43% of all those referred to the food bank are there because of benefit stoppage or the refusal of a crisis loan.

Usually that is because they have fallen foul of the conditions that require people on benefits to demonstrate they are looking for work, and have been, as the system puts it, "sanctioned".

Martyne Wilson Martyne Wilson says a change in the number of children in her household caused her claim to fail

"It is reasonable to expect people to apply for a certain number of jobs per week," says Gavin Kibble, who runs the Coventry food bank. "But if you fail that particular test and you have a sanction, the sanction could be there for weeks."

"Now the logic flaw in that is exactly where do you expect people to go and find money during that period if Jobseeker's [Allowance] is supposed to be the point of last resort in terms of income? Effectively we become a backstop to the welfare state system."

Martyne explains she is getting Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit for two of the four children in the house. So what stops her using that to buy food?

"Bills," she says. Her partner, Darren England, who is long-term disabled, spells it out: "Clothes, water bill, electric, TV licence."

And, chips in Steven McEnery, a family member, "she's already had to borrow from other people she knows who'll help out; so when she gets the money she has to pay them back".

All cases in this mix of benefits, debt and food poverty are complex, but Martyne's predicament is becoming common and if you look at the Department for Work and Pensions graph below you can see why.

DWP Graph

Since 2010, while the number of people getting their Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) claims refused has fallen, from 80,000 to about 40,000, the number of people getting their benefits suspended has spiked.

And this is just for JSA. The controversial disability tests introduced for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are leading to thousands of people having their disability benefits cut, sometimes by £30 out of £100 a week, says the CAB.

To put it bluntly, the new benefits regime is forcing people off benefits - not permanently, but as a temporary punishment. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, sanction or disallowance happened to 167,000 people in the three months to February 2012.

Debt trap

But if 43% of the hunger being dealt with by food banks concerns benefit disruption, where does the rest come from? How is it that people in work, or on full benefits, can end up hungry?

At the CAB in Coventry the answer stares them in the face each morning when they open the doors to a queue of people, often numbering their entire capacity for the day. It is debt.

Gavin Kibble Manager Gavin Kibble says the food bank has become a backstop to the welfare system

Mary Shine says she comes across food poverty three or four times a week in her home visits. Often people are prioritising paying interest on their debts over buying food.

A particular problem, says Ms Shine, is doorstep lending:

"Doorstep lending is always about preying on people who are unable to access High Street banks," she says. And adding to the problem is the way lenders befriend clients:

"It's not the man from the credit company, it is 'my friend Tom, who's been coming for years'," Ms Shine explains. "I think it's all about the befriending and then the guilt-tripping, the fear that you're letting them down."

"The result is they're paying £15, £10 a week to the doorstep lender out of their food bill."

The CAB says that when they try to help people manage their debts, it is common to find them so protective of doorstep loans that they do not want to renegotiate them, sometimes even walking away from debt counselling rather than upsetting the doorstep loan company.

Safety net

High interest lending to poor people is a boom industry now in Britain. That, combined with low wages and insecure work is what drives people with jobs to the food bank.

Mary Shine CAB caseworker Mary Shine says she sees three or four incidents of food poverty each week

And it is hard to see quick solutions: successive governments have shied away from capping the interest rates the payday loan and doorstep lending companies charge. Yet the prevalence of families prioritising debt over food is troubling.

With the benefit disruption problem, it has clear roots in the determination of successive governments to make it harder to stay on benefits long-term.

But whether by accident or design, the rise in JSA "sanctions" - together with recent changes to disability benefits - say the CAB, seems to correlate directly with the growing number of people who turn up at food banks.

The welfare system is creating a new kind of poverty, and the new safety net is not the state at all, but the volunteers sorting the tins and pasta at the Hope Centre and places like it.

Watch Paul Mason's report on food banks on Newsnight on Tuesday 4 September 2012 at 2230 on BBC TWO, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    All the rhetoric surrounding the changes to welfare was in terms of a 'ferral underclass' yet what is being created here?
    This is about desperate grinding poverty with no way out. No jobs and not enough to live on.
    It's a policy that seems to be endorsed by all parties as there is never any political outcry or opposition.
    We are turning into a 'punish the poor for their own good' society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The byword for the age is "don't get sick". I've seen too many people through volunteer work reduced to penury beacuse of illness-employers complaining they can't afford sick pay;insurance companies arguing the toss over whether the illness is long-term or permanent.Arguing about people having too many children that they can't afford is asinine - & owes more to Sun/Murdoch/Daily Fail stereotyping.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    A lot of people simply need to accept bankruptcy as the best means for clearing their debt. Unfortunately we have a general ignorance in this country of what this entails and a tendency to look down our nose at those who use it.

    Also, we now have a benefit system so complex that even those that work in it are unsure what people are supposed to receive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Distributing real food rather than cash that can be misused on fags, alcohol, sky tv, etc. is a great test of whether someone is in genuine need or not.

    I wonder how many bogus claimants would disappear if their benefits were paid in food and clothes that they had to pick up personally every week?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    59,000 people in Coventry are on the 'breadline' and yet at my office we hire in immigrants to clean the office and staff the cafe? Have in been on the dole (albeit for a mercifully short time) I've seen the attitude which contributes to this odd state of affairs. Some people want a job but don't understand you work to get it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I blame the government (and the rich people they work for).

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    having done a little volunteering in a food bank i can say that while nobody who comes in is 'starving' they just offer a bit of short-term community support to people having, a tough ride. Most are referred by the CAB after running out of options- i'd say a parcel of healthy, donated food is preferable to emergency loans and debts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I am sure there is no truth in the rumour that on hearing of such nutritional deprivation Osborne asked if they have tried cake. Things can only get worse as waiting in the wings are UC and revised council tax benefit. The latter comes with a 10% reduction all of which has to be shouldered by claimants of working age. Will we see self immolation on the streets of our big cities?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    These people should go and get high paid jobs in the City, or as lobbyists or PR people. Then they wouldn't be poor. Serves them right. If I can do it, then they can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This will continue to worsen as successive governments bully the defenceless poor to try and balance the books, while tiptoeing round the rich industrialists, bankers and loan sharks.
    All world poverty is caused by world greed..

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    3.Ex Tory Voter
    Yes there is its called '' work '''

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Oh boy is this going to bring out the super-nieves who will cheerfully condemn the less fortunate while actually having no clue what life is about down at the bottom of the pile. I can't offer any perfect solutions, but I have been homeless living on meal tickets so I at least understand that there is no simple one-line answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Ok, call me harsh, but if people are in that much financial trouble why do they insist on having further children? One of the ladies in the article stated her new baby had arrived. If you are that poor you cannot afford food stop having more kids which are quite costly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    In this country we have 'relative poverty' i.e. below 60% of the median national income which is around £100 a week for a single adult. The kind of absolute poeverty you see in the undeveloped world does not exist here. Point in fact, the lady can't buy food but she pays a TV liscence and so presumably has a TV? I'm not saying it's a nice life but get your priorities right.


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