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 54.

    Usury is acceptable when it is the poor. I guess it is less acceptable when the rich have to stoop too usury? The system is broken. A paper based currency which is bankrupt as this one surely is will end bad one day. There will not be enough foodbanks or money laden wheelbarrows when that day arrives, soon, very soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Gavin Kibble under estimated the santions. A) 2 weeks for first failure. B) 4 weeks for second failure. C) then 26 weeks for third failure. Potentially of 32 weeks in total. I'm expected to apply for 6 jobs per week, but as a graduate, its not easy to find work electronics. I also look for work not in line with my degree, but even then its a constant never ending struggle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Lots of estates in england are full of baby machines,new phones,drinking in the pub,branded clothing,you can tell how much they love their kids by the way that they talk/shout/scream at the kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Seize the means of production.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    It is the corrupt monetary/economic system that increases the breach between the rich and the poor, ultimate leading to the 99/1%. This need not to be so! Adhering to the eternal Laws of Economics everyone can earn their daily bread. For your information Google The World Monetary Order to Come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @32, redundancy happens. You might have had a perfectly sustainable lifestyle until job cuts / wage cuts / hours cut at work.

    Saying she shouldn't have had kids is stupid. You have no idea what circumstances have led to low wage / benefit situations.

    As for TV licenses, well people have to have something to keep them from abject boredom. You can't jobsearch when libraries / JC are closed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    So much for Britain being a modern democracy, concerned about the poor, compassionate, civilised - we are in large part no more civilised than the apes......

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    11.In Gold I Trust

    Our American friends use food stamps, they are then traded for as little as 10% of their cash value, to fund smoking, alchohol, drugs etc.

    People who prioritise these things over food will allways find a way to get them.

    There is not a solution to this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #27 That is totally hilarious! What's less funny is I think you may have just outlined some genuinely held beliefs of part of the Labour party and their mouthpiece here at the BBC.

    It's awful to think of people going hungry and choosing debt over food. I'd love to see a financial breakdown though and see how many of these families have Blackberry's or Sky TV and how much they spend on beer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @#27 I take it all those comments were entirely tongue in cheek!!

    I think if people learned to cook they could eat far more cheaply. I am not on benefits but on a limited income and eat healthily. Takeaways etc are an EXPENSIVE option. Baked potatoes, baked beans, tinned ratatouille and tomatoes, pasta, fresh vegetables, mature cheddar (use less than mild in recipes!) are just a few suggestions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    "If you can't afford to feed your children then don't have them in the first place."

    Yeah! I agree!

    And if people fall on hard times, they should just give their children back!

    Oh wait...

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Although described as “waste” much food is fit for eating, but nevertheless ends up in the organic recycling bin. If this is true for US & Canada, it must be true for UK. I don't think families are used to saving the scraps for another day; maybe, they shouldn't have to...but that's irrelevent. No good food should go to waste. This includes waste from food manufacturers & retailers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I'm sorry to hear people are struggling but surely having another child is not the answer as the woman in this story has blamed for her problems. These people who have loads of kids just so they don't have to go to work must be addressed as soon as possible. This is what is costing the goverment millions of pounds supporting these people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Fact. A girl can be with someone get pregnant-kick fella out claim free housing get benefits and csa the x. This is the new way of life, my friend works 6 days a week and ends up with little, and less to take his kids out. Meanwhile, she enjoys new clothes,nights on the town whilst her kids get cheap crap clothes. Kids don't know whats going on as new boyfriends every week. Change benefit system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    '"Bills," she says. Her partner, Darren England, who is long-term disabled, spells it out: "Clothes, water bill, electric, TV licence."
    I can see a saving right there with one non-essential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I'm confused - I've got 4 hungry kids and I choose to spend £145 on a TV licence then beg for food? Thats 3 weeks of decent food from Aldi??? I'm all for helping genuine people but too many have their priorities wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I was brought up "if you can't afford it do without". This includes smoking, Sky, latest mobile phone and even children!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    #33 distroy the family destory society : lenin

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I remember when I got a 2 week sanction on Jobseekers. All because I was ill too many times that year and missed one of my job club appointments. Despite the fact I rang in to tell them I was sick.

    What do they expect you to do? Go in and give everyone else the flu? Thankfully I survived on £10 I had saved and ate cheap 30p pasta once per day but it could've been worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Benefit as a lifestyle choice has caused alot of the issues.

    Benefit is meant to be a safety net, and it is. You CAN quite easily feed your self on what is received.

    You are not meant to have Sky TV, Takeaways, boozy nights in the pub Etc.

    Thats not what Benefit is there for. Parts of society live in the 'I am Entitled to' mind set.

    You are Entitled to what your earnings afford and no more!


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