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 134.

    If food banks were more widely available, people should be encouraged to donate more unwanted food in the same way that clothes are requested and collected by charities in sacks. Irrespective of whether people are poor, if surplus food is available, those who need it should be able help themselves. I would be there most days if I lived near an outlet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Ha ha, point taken but it's a fact that many of the young can't get their head around how a household functions - and what they need to do for the good of all. Baby-making machines (in their teens?) consumers of fast food (not sure who pays - overindulgent parents perhaps) and wanting up to the minute electronics and clothes IS a normal expectation of many: young and not so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    129.coresme2 Punting kids into care/adoption doesn't solve the problem. All you'd be doing is taking state money from the biological parents and ploughing it into paying someone else to look after the child if they're fostered and not adopted. Anyway, this country is in dire need of foster parents/adoptive parents as it is, without adding a plethora of extra children into it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Stop paying people to have kids and a massive amount of this countries problems disappear overnight

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Yes GoddessMushu, this may not be Uzebekistan but the overpopulation crisis is global and exists here. This country is largely dependent on massive food imports with no certainty or security concerning future imports what with climate change and socio-economic collapse. Mine isn't the only way to manage population is more humane than social chaos though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    After 1 child, the further progeny of benefits claimants should be taken into care then given up for adoption or taxed. This would all stop if people had to pay to have children not get paid! You need look no further than last year's riots to see what problems this system breeds in terms of perceived entitlement to everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I am not interested in this Woman she has made/laid in her own bed so she can stay in it.
    Now the important question When are hard working Families going to get the ( massive ) tax cuts they deserve ??
    I don't care if they abolish the welfare system I want the workers to keep their money they earned it is theirs ..
    Anyone who disagrees is little more than a supporter of theft !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    @101 empiredown

    Wow....I've heard of Pro Life and Pro Choice but Pro Death?

    Take a minute to think about what you've suggested here...this isn't Uzbekistan where hospitals are illegally neutering woman to control the population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    118.lelboy I've learned more cooking skills having flown the nest han I did at school. As for cleaning up, housework etc, I had no choice as a child. My mum's philosophy was if you use it, you clean it. Toilet included. I remember cleaning the toilet when I was a young teen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Aside from some very pertinant questions being asked here about work ethic and financial priorities, I would like to know when I will be asked as a voter about benefits in this country? I would like a fairer society but I want to see some options as clearly 'benefits' are not working. Or does the liberal PC crowd which the 1960's produced still believe it knows best. My message is stop pandering!

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    A common trick the job centre does is removing your benefit for six months for turning down a job opportunity. This doesn't actually mean turning down a job, but only applying for five jobs, when they've given you six application forms for jobs you aren't suitable for.

    They are quite happy to see people starve to fill their quotas

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    If they can afford oven chips and mayonnaise then they can afford fresh veg - Lazy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Just how many kids that she can't afford does this woman intend to spawn? For her to receive benefits, someone else has to go do a day's work in order to pay for their own needs *and* pay enough tax to subsidise her unproductive lifestyle. She doesn't deserve an scintilla of pity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    In the 80's a child = a council home, in the 90's kids = council home + £££ per kid.

    No wonder 2012 we now have social problems in our council housing, where gangs of roaming feral kids terrorise entire communities. Sometime all the prodginey of one family.

    Child tax should be 100% for first child, 50% for second, none for any more. We should implement this from 2014.

    Current claims payed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    The fact that it is more expensive to be poor in Britain that it is to be rich is shameful,even in heating/electricity people on a prepaid meter pay a much higher rate than others,and the fact that the government take 5% in tax says it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    There's now a trend among some young people to call receiving their benefits "getting paid". It might seem like a silly point, but pay day to me is when I am rewarded for the hours I put in at work. I really hope young people realised that receiving benefits, and getting paid, are two completely different things. Unfortunately, there's a lot who seem to think they're the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Just so. Perhaps someone can tell me why "home economics" has been phased out in schools. Many people of my age - 60 - know how to cook, do the ironing, tidy up after ourselves. Sad to say, many of today's young do not have a clue. Washing up - why? I want to play on my PC/PS3 etc. Why should I do anything - that's what parents are for.
    A trend of indifference is rife nowadays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Abortion is a sensitive area and yet the best time to save someone from a life sentence of poverty is before it happens. I guess the state sanctioning this comes across as authoritarianism to some sensitive souls here? yet this would not be eugenics but rather a act of compassion. With proper checks and balances, based on facts not rants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I would not want anyone to go hungry in this very rich society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Are people using these food banks assessed to see if they are smokers or regularly buying alcohol? If they do smoke and drink then they surely have enough money to buy food for themselves and their families. Anyone with the ability to buy cigarettes and/or alcohol should not be wasting the food resources for those in real need. It's all about priorities.


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