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 154.

    There are no poor or rich folks in my books. There are only resource hogs at all parts of the income scale. A good parenting test would should not only identify the idle poor for remedial punishment but also the idle rich. In view of how much we need to do to get our economic footing the idle rich are a worse threat than the poor. And parenting tests should reflect fecklessness of any means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    135.Sergoba - I am amazed at your response.
    I have lived in shared private rented housing for almost 10 years with 4 bedrooms. The majority of people I have lived with have come straight from Europe, with little English. They have not signed on the dole or job seekers and have found menial, low paid jobs quickly and worked 40 + hours a week hard to support themselves. THERE ARE JOBS OUT THERE!

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.


    I work for a living, I'm not rich (far from it), I maintain some modest savings in case I end up out of work and am fully prepared to take what work I can get in that eventuality. In addition I understand that if I did lose my job, some serious belt tightening would be in order.

    My wife and I used to be poor because I had a crap job but we BUDGETED and lived within our means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Azlak Thanks. A little off topic, but I think a lot of the problem is reality TV and imports from America, whereby the "now", "possessions" and "image" are all important. To try to live up to a lifestyle you can't afford is both foolish and sad. More things matter than the markers of being "cool", and sad to say, one of these markers is having babies as fashion accessories. Then reality hits!

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.


    I really hope you never lose your job and end up on jobseekers. Although you'd soon understand what a miserable experience it is for the majority of us stuck on it.

    The minority of people who scrounge give the rest of us bad names yes, but penalizing US because of them is a terrible route to go. Tax evasion from the rich costs this country more than benefit fraud

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    As to Single mothers - in this day of DNA testing - The daddy should be identified and forced to support his child and its mother rather than getting a free ride because they are not married.

    Based on TV images of US food banks - many of the users who ran out of food during the week - are overweight & simply didn't plan their weekly meals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    There are a growing number of foodbanks because this could not care a less governemt are deliberately sliding Britain further into recession, thus creating more and more poverty

    That is where they want us. On our hands and knees while they enjoy wealth and luxury. Britain is going backwards and this is deliberate. It will be Workhouses and the Poor Law next. Back to the 19th Century

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.


    So what you are saying is that taxpayers like me should just accept that if we don't give our money to scroungers, they will get their own back by comitting crime to fund the life-styles they've become accustomed to?

    That makes sense. Perhaps I should just walk round my local housing estate with my hard-earned wages and hand it out now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Am I supposed to be surprised?

    We are supposed to have a safety net in the welfare state but having recently helped a friend who badly needed that safety net its existence is open to question.

    This has nothing to do with cuts but a lot to do with official indifference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    There seems to be a lot of people on here complaining that other people are having children they can't afford.

    The irony being that if their parents had waited till they could afford children then most of them wouldn't exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    133.lelboy Absolutely. I do feel it's all in the upbringing and I feel very fortunate that I wasn't brought up under the illusion that everyone else existed to provide me with anything. I guess it's a harsh lesson to try and teach a child, and one some parents don't bother with nowadays. Kids raising kids, I suppose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    @140. empty1969

    Then the crime rate will just go up as some of the more desperate alcoholics turn to mugging and thievery for their alcohol. Seriously people think through your silly 'solutions'.

    @124.Shaunie Babes

    So true I almost got a sanction for refusing to apply for a job that required a driving license... because I can't drive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.


    Wow. I am simply amazed by the frankly evil comments.
    We have had Millions & Millions of Immigrants into the U.K. over the last 10 years I wonder where they all are starving to death, without any work or prospects ..
    but then these Entitled & Tax thefts supporters are to arrogant to accept that millions of immigrants are in jobs, what can you do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    @130 empiredown

    There are much more humane ways of dealing with it. What if your situation changes after you got pregnant & were forced to abort?

    I like the idea of reducing the amount paid out with each child, and it should be seen as abuse if that money is spent on something other than the childs care. Should reduce the amount of people who get pregnant for the wrong reasons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.


    Yes there is a solution. Very simple and effective. The social security issue chip and pin cards which are linked to a DSS account for your benefits. The card can't be used to buy items that are blacklisted including cigarettes and booze. It would be difficult / impossible to counterfeit and there's be nothing to trade and there'd be a record of where you spent the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Oven chips with sickening! Surely a tin of beans is cheaper than jar of mayo, and a bit healthier. Better to buy a Sack of Potatoes, used to be about £4.00 and that provides potatoes for a long time if kept in cool place; also a large quantity of minced beef. That's Mince and Tatties for ever!..With savings, buy veg. People are struggling because they don't know how to shop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Give me one reason why I SHOULD care about people who can't manage their own finances.

    Because I see none. At all.

    Let 'em starve,

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    #22 etc - pray God you're never sick, disabled or in need. Taking the specific & generalising to the whole country just doesn't wash. Would you require the poor to be sterislised or have them pass a govt solvency test before having a child - & even if the poor are feckless & irresponsible, are you going to blame the children for the sins of the parents and continue the cycle of deprivation.

  • Comment number 136.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Wow. I am simply amazed by the frankly evil comments here about population control, and the poor.

    isn't the true root of the problem, that there are no jobs, no economy and no hope for so many people in this country? I know I would sooner go hungry than shame myself to go to a food bank, but if you're starving, because this government is too arrogant to accept there are no jobs, what can you do?


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