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 34.

    "oven chips and mayonnaise" Poverty?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    One question. Where's the husband/father of the children?

    Benefits should be a safety net not a way of life!

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    surprise surprise, how many children does this woman need? no money and 4 children....... I have no children and would not consider this without being able to provide for them. I pay tax to fund people having children they cannot afford with no responsibility or consideration for the children they produce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It is hearty breaking that people in this great prosperous country are going without food.

    There is ENOUGH for food for all. We as a nation WASTE SO MUCH FOOD. I've worked in a supermarket as a student and watched them throw away perfectly good food.

    Its a disgrace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    If you can't afford to feed your children then don't have them in the first place. Children are a responsibility not a right. I have provided for my children from my over taxed income and I object to paying for other people's children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    If you have a garden or an orchard overflowing with more fruit & vegetables than you can use, Please! Consider donating to a food bank... So many children in families you would not even imagine struggling are experiencing vitamin deficiency.Share your bounty of apples, pears, tomatoes, beans, carrots -- whatever you have to spare. Nothing is more important than relieving the hunger of little ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    #10 think there should be real debate on the effects of massive immigration in the last 15 years and the effect it has had on the 5-8 million on some sort of benifit

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    We should increase income tax to 80 % anyone who has a mortgage should also be penalised and increased tax levied on them.
    Ownership of a Car in not necessary and should be taxed highly. N.I. doubled any worker with more than 1 months salary in the bank should have it confiscated. anyone paying pension contributions stopped & confiscated.
    This then to be directed to Benefits recipients.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Councils are deciding now where the council tax benefit short fall will impact and tin pot Tory administrations are delighting in being able to define the deserving and undeserving poor. In places with a high OAP population other claimants will suffer a 20% cut in support. Certain groups it will be much higher. Mr. Osborne, they wont even be able to afford cake as a bread substitute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Note the money lost due to benefit fraud is a lot less than the monkey lost due to DWP mistakes.

    People generally start a family when they have a job then if they get in trouble later what are they supposed to do, sell their children into slavery?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    cont. return the favor by helping those who need it. My wife is now self employed and I work for a community development project.
    Luckily in Finland we don't get those emergency or doorstep loans, but we would not use them if we did.
    The first thing we did when our income fell was to get rid of all uneeded expenses including the TV and all magazine subscriptions. We went 5 years with no holiday.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    We can spend millions of £ to provide security to a lad who goes nut in Las Vegas but its ashamed we can't provide the basic necessity of life to a comon person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @13 PaulRM:
    The children situation is neither asinine nor media driven. I live in the NE of England and have seen first hand in Wallsend where people I was at school with who have 5-6 children to get a massive amount of free cash and other benefits/council house without having worked a day in their lives.

    I have no kids, I work full time and I live within my means, maybe more people need to do so

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What is desperately needed is for a few clear minds to sit down and calmly and critically look at how the whole welfare/benefits systems work.

    They should be apolitical and have never worked for the DWP, Civil Service or other government agencies, councils or charities . If some of them have been or are in receipt of benefits so much the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    A few years ago we went through a (luckily fairly short) period of time when I was studying for a higher degree after having to quit my job due to health problems and my wife was temporarily unemployed. We had to rely for a short time on handouts from the local congregation to feed our family (two young children at the time) and are very grateful for the help we got. Now we try to return the favor

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I sympathize enormously with the people in this article, but one has to ask the question... Why does she continue to have children if she hasn't the means to her current family? It's tough love, but people need to refrain from having children if they cannot afford to pay for them themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The government looks after the rich; charities look after the poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @2 - perhaps the baby wasn't planned?

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Will get slated here, but if the author, whom I respect greatly did not want comment on it, then it would not be in his article.

    Teenage daughter, two toddlers and four week old baby......

    I give to charity, help in charity shops and do all I can, but and it is a big but.

    There has to be an element of personal responsibility in this too, or where does it stop?

    Very sad, perhaps harsh but true.


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