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 434.


    This has nothing to do with banks and everything to do with profiteering companies with greedy shareholders.

    Except that the banks are leaders in speculation in oil, gas, and food production (but maybe that doesn't factor?).

    Also, it depends on your view of the reasons for inflation (including the subtle ones). Banks don't have a role and thus some blame?

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    The case of fraudulent or undeserving Disability claims are the exception rather than the rule.
    How quickly we've forgotten about MP's fraud or less than honest expense claims, which have taken place over many decades & only came to light by chance, or wealthy individuals & multi million companies legal tax avoidance scams
    Its easier to have a go at the poorest and vulnerable in society isn't it

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Most born onto highest heaps of human verbiage, the locations of vital principles thus marked - but definitions buried - by mountains, ranges & continents, of texts, papers, clips & tweets

    Many drawn from far, some 'called to heights', to build ivory towers, palaces of commerce, politics, religions, lives easily spent 'missing the point', miles adrift of bedrock faith: in Care & Equal Democracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    I am staggered that David Kruger has the effrontery to lecture the rest of us on responsibility when his friends have ripped us off for billions. Perhaps he would like to see the dispossessed turn to organised crime for support as in southern Italy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    So this is the 'big society'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Thoughtcrime @383
    "Obsession with dignity"?

    On the NON-"dignity" of parasitism, "Snap!"

    But holding to "the presumption of innocence… and so of dignity",
    We should afford every child 'the right to a good start',
    Every citizen 'the right to belong,
    Contributor as able, beneficiary / pensioner in genuine need

    Let "loss of dignity", loss of Equality, be EARNED - by laziness or criminality

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    I know someone who uses a foodbank.
    She has a job.
    And an i-phone.
    And an i-pad.
    I guess it is down to how you want to spend your money and if food is being given away many people will take it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    Of all the comments on this forum related to greedy bankers etc. When I analyse why I seem much worse off lately it comes down to electricity, gas, food, petrol and travel to work costs which have all rocketed over the last 3 years. This has nothing to do with banks and everything to do with profiteering companies with greedy shareholders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.


    `Cameron has a cunning plan'

    You reckon? I guess when he does manage to string two thoughts together to make anything coherent they add up to`stay in No 10 regardless'.

    It is apparent from this government and the one before that there is no political will in this country that includes most of the population. This is why there is little work, much frustration and some hunger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    The article fails to give us any background on Ms Wilson. So we don't know whether she fell on hard times when she lost her job or whether she became a benefits claimant straight after school. I would suggest given the tenor of comments here that the distinction would affect people's comments. Given how difficult it is to get ESA people are turning to loans and ATOS's role in this needs clarifying

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    It is a fine line between comfort and poverty, so all those who have been commenting with unkind comments towards people in need think twice, have compassion you may need it one day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    Everything that our forefathers fought for in the war against the fascists is being taken away very quickly, but at the other end too big to fail allows those with money to socialize their losses. Millionaires in government, will steal pennies from your grandmother, your children, and you, and will tell you it's all for the good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    I think it's gotten to the point where the government sets a date and says after this date , if you have anymore kids you will have no help or benifits of us . I bet the amount of money being spent on benifits will decrease slowly also breeder and teen pregnancy will be none existent , then they can move onto the problem of overpopulation to free up jobs and housing to make it cheaper for the rest

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    The only scrongers in the UK are the middle class, with your student loans, bank loans, buy to let and desire to sell any industry and working class history under the mat. The same working class who paid and created tax for 150 years for NU Labour to steal. - The best reply as usual will be, "Daily Mail reader," shows the extent of your vocab these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    £150 billion benefit bill? What proportion is used to supplement low wages. Newsnight recently had a report on companies paying low wages, knowing full well the benefit system would be used to take up the slack. Here we are again "scroungers" being blamed for the level of benefit spending. Why won't newsnight follow up ? What % of the benefit bill is due to low wages. & how is govt. going to cut.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    414. KMxRetro
    413. empty1969

    The problem is these HYS's get hijacked by people with an axe to grind over benefit fraud. If you know of an example stop with the bile & report them. The hotline number is on the DWP site.

    This HYS is highlighting a very real problem caused by the economic meltdown & effecting many poorly paid working people & genuine claimants.

    Not a forum to spout hatred.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    People on here forget that their "tough love" doesn't punish the irresponsible breeding machines... it punishes the innocent child that has no choice who they are born to. Easy to act tough now, but when the babies start dying I wonder if you'll still keep up the act?

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.


    I agree with what someone else said on another HYS: he could shuffle the opposition into the cabinet and nothing would change.

    Anyway, i'm off to work in 5 hours to pay for their duck houses, so i'd best get some rest i think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    415. Rodders

    Well said that man ... but they are currently being shuffled around to stop us from tracking the culprits - Cameron has a cunning plan!

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.


    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.

    I personally think there's more than a few of them in the cabinet (and opposition) right now, but that is just my view.

    Benefit scroungers are a minority.


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