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 414.

    Woman in my road had four kids. I was at school with the two eldest. They didn't have any goals, other than having babies and getting council houses. Upshot of that is ten years later, between them, they have 13 children and 4 free houses. Not done a single day's work between them.

    Laziness and idiocy breeds laziness and idiocy, especially when laziness and idiocy is so richly rewarded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    410. Rodders

    I'm not knocking people who are struggling to find work. Until they do, they should be supported - I would expect to be if I lost my job. I have a problem with the people who play the system and who don't want to work and I think that there are more than a few of those in this country now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    I see we have another meeting of the Friends of the Daily Mail Society. What a sorry lot you are. Let's hope all your employers realise that in the near future - and send you to the benefits queue. In the meantime, let's call an election and appoint a government who can see past bribes, corruption, persecution and keeping all the riches for themselves and their wealthy chums

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.


    "Also, the old "reductio ad absurdum" approach never won anybody an argument, and it sure as heck has never impressed anyone."

    It worked for Xenophanes of Colophon, Zeno of Elea, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus and Hegel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.


    There are 2 groups of real scroungers.

    1/ The very few people who play the benefits system and give real people who have fallen on hard times a bad name.

    2/ The very few people who play the tax/political/business/banking systems to put money offshore and talk down to everyone else whilst saying they're having a hard time and might move if they don't get exactly what they want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    295. gc - No, we don't. But lack of first-hand experience is what most people are saying is the problem with anyone's comments. "You don't know what its like to be on benefits...", etc. etc.

    Trust me, in this town, its FAR more than just a single couple.

    Also, the old "reductio ad absurdum" approach never won anybody an argument, and it sure as heck has never impressed anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    If you arrived home with your wages and one of your neighbours who has no intention of working knocked and asked for some money because he'd run out of fags and his four kids didn't have any food, I'm sure most people would tell him to get on his bike.

    This isn't far removed to what is happening in this country only the scroungers don't even have to ask in person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    406. empty1969

    I take it you have never lived in Coventry Empty - Coventry hit the rails when the Textile industry collapsed and more recently when GEC & the motor industry collapsed .. funnily enough (not) the 80's and early 90's saw the death of coventry as a major city with the Tory party - coincidence (NOT) - its mainly a commuter town for Birmingham with a few bits and bobs now.

  • Comment number 406.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    @ empty1969

    So what are you doing up so late,don`t you also have to be up at the crack of dawn preparing for another go-getting day earning your daily bread to give to the Banksters and their political puppets?

    Scroungers indeed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.


    The government is determined to crush the benefits culture

    I think you'll ultimately find the government entrenching the benefits culture further, after all if the government don't provide a backup just in case of personal misfortune, then why would any reasoned "worker" pay into the system and thus support the government?

    They'll just sell it for profit, paid for by taxes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    Some absolutely outrageous comments here ... those people cheating our system include MPs with their expenses scandals, Bankers rigging LIBOR and so on...

    Other people cheating our system are those being given £2400+ per month JUST to rent flats in central london.

    You could get a mortgage and live in Coventry for that kind of money each month!

  • rate this

    Comment number 402.

    This forum is starting to look like it's full of dole-dossers judging by the way any comments related to questioning the rights of scroungers are being marked down.

    People that work for a living will always be better off because there's no economy if the incentive to work is removed. The government is determined to crush the benefits culture - because workers are sick of paying for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.


    "Alot of these people are on drugs, booze, fags"

    So are the M.P`s who are destroying this country,feeding like pigs at the taxpayer`s money trough while the majority in the country are made poorer each year through debasement of the currency and a disintegrating economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    Paul, did Ms. Wilson explain off camera what stopped her from getting on the Pill, which is free on the NHS, so that she doesn't have four children to feed?

    Fancy doing a piece on responsible child bearing as one step a family can take to stay away from hunger?

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    This situation has slowly crept up on many because our governments have been completely inept for generations.

    Our democracy is broken - our MPs are completely out of control and even corrupt.

    We have only a "Red Ping" or a "Blue Pong" choice both of which have failed us.

    They just blame each other like kids in a playground.

    Pay Day loan sharks epitomise the level that we have sunk to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    A very interesting peice. We spend £185 billion pa on welfare, and yet seem to be unable to actually provide welfare. Instead millions are trapped on benefits. Where taking up work will actually result in a reduction in your standard of living. Minimum wage is £12k. The average salary in the UK is £28k. Cost of living is better represented by the average. We desperatly need to rebalance

  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    Do these food bank people not look in the supermarkets for 'near sell by date' food that is reduced? I've seen a loaf for 60p, beans for 20p. Beans on toast for 90p. Or a packet of fags fro £6+. What a choice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    why is it that over your correspondents shoulder you can see an array of sky satellite dishes? The BBC is again fostering a left wing view. how about putting them on ebay to pay their food!

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    I work hard, I don't love my job but I do it to support my family. I relish ever moment of my holidays and spending time with my family and would love to not have to work. So why, am I paying taxes to people who have absolutely no intention of working when they can have a taste of my wage packet without lifting a finger (except to smoke one of the fags I've paid for).


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