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What I want you to know about Foodbank use and food insecurity in the UK, by Kate Haddow

I am really not the sort of person to say I am intelligent and I am happy to admit I know nowt really.  I am not really the kind of person on Facebook or Twitter to get involved in deep debates like Brexit… uhhh god no, give me a good meme any day because I don’t really feel I have the knowledge to make any kind of valid argument.  Although that doesn’t stop most. But there is one topic I feel I know better than most and that is foodbanks and food insecurity.

My knowledge of foodbanks or food insecurity doesn’t come from a documentary on channel 4 or from an article in The Sun.  My knowledge is based on empirical research: I have done countless interviews with those who have used foodbanks, and for around one year I hung around with people in Middlesbrough – one of the most deprived areas of the UK – looking at soup kitchens, independent foodbanks, and community meals. I invested a lot into my research emotionally and with my time, giving up my evenings and weekends to see what it was like for those who didn’t even have a tin of soup in their cupboard.  So food insecurity is kind of my thing.  So you know what? You want to tell me you know more because you saw something on Facebook then roll up your sleeves and sharpen your claws, because I will fight you on this one.

  1. Foodbanks are not a new phenomenon

When I was little I never heard the word ‘foodbank’ and even until a few years ago I didn’t understand what they were, even the thought of people not having stuff in the cupboards was inconceivable because if we thought of starvation we don’t automatically think of people in the UK.  Being hungry is something that happens elsewhere, right? Growing up, me and my mam never had a lot but we always ate. Ok so food aid has always existed in the UK, we sadly have always had people who have been unable to feed themselves in society.  The oldest type of food aid has generally been in the form of soup kitchens. Foodbanks haven’t just magically popped up in the UK like some people think.  The foodbank model that we know today derived from the North America form of them in the 1950s.  During the 1990s, across Europe we saw the birth of foodbanks in the midst of an economic crisis, in 2001 the first foodbank in the UK opened in a garden shed in Salisbury, and the Trussell Trust network (the largest and most well-known foodbanking franchise in the UK) appeared in 2004.  So really foodbanks have been around a while, sadly.  So why are we just hearing about them now?

Well it’s quite obvious really, as demand for food aid has soared since 2011 after the biggest changes to the welfare state in generations.  So we suddenly had a greater reliance and needed more people to donate, hence the appearance of those giant baskets in supermarkets.  I think when food banking started becoming headline news was when as a nation we became genuinely appalled, as it sounded like something Charles Dickens would have written about in the culture of his time. So foodbanks and food aid are not new, but the ever increasing need and scale of food aid is new, it’s growing exponentially and is slowly becoming part of life in the UK.

  1. Food waste is not the answer to food insecurity

Oh my lord where do I start on this! OK so it seems an attractive idea, right? We have millions of tonnes food going to the landfills, meanwhile people don’t have food in the cupboards, seems like a win-win to send this waste food their way instead. But for whom? Let me give you a clue: it aint the people receiving the crappy out of date food.

Excess food waste and food insecurity are two very different issues.  The former is the product of a greedy consumer driven society the latter is a product of failings of the welfare state. One cannot be used to cancel the other out.  Remember companies like Tesco, who are increasingly becoming involved in food aid, like the idea of donating food because it saves them fortunes not having to dispose of the food safely, and it makes them look good.

It’s like this, I have seen the consequences of giving people food waste.  I have seen a few sites of food aid given leftovers to feed people. God knows if it has been stored properly, who knows if it has been reheated thoroughly.  The result: my participants frequently get very ill from leftover food. You get the picture: sickness, diarrhoea and spells when they’re not sure which end to put over the toilet. Not to mention the inability of food waste to accommodate for dietary requirements such as Crohn’s, diabetes, religious restrictions or food intolerances like gluten etc, because these don’t just affect middle class people like some would have you believe. Is this really the best we can do for some of the most vulnerable in our society? The food we give poor people says a lot about how much we value them as a society.

  1. Everyone has the right to food, even heroin addicts

So I believe we should all be entitled food no matter who we are and most people agree with me on this. That is until I mention people like addicts, alcoholics or people on benefits. Then suddenly that right does not apply to them. Generally, because we see these people as ‘undeserving’ of any kind of help because it’s their own fault they are in this situation.  This is the part of the blog where I will be torn apart for and people will lose interest.

I am not for one moment going to condone addiction or even attempt to romanticise addiction, there is nothing nice about it. As someone who has worked alongside those with addictions I felt the brunt of it, the lies, the mood swings, the violence and the erratic behaviour, the helpless feeling of watching someone you care for slowly kill themselves and there is nothing you can do to save them.  I have watched the addiction accelerate and looked at these people and thought “I don’t even know you anymore”.  My heart goes out to those affected by and battling addictions.

Whenever I have interviewed people in need of free food and they have told me that they are a heroin addict I have in my head thought: fuck!  It does not bother me, but I have thought how will I ever convince people that heroin addicts are entitled to free food and help?  I don’t think I ever will and I know someone will be reading this and screaming “well no one forced them to shove a needle in their arm!”

Middlesbrough has been dubbed the heroin capital of the UK many times and still has a huge problem with opiate abuse. Have you ever wondered why heroin is a problem in areas of high deprivation? Heroin is a poverty drug, considered the worst of all drugs, a dirty drug, because of its connections to needles, blood and disease.  Heroin is used by many as a form self-medication to cope with how shit things are. Hanging round with heroin addicts I have learnt about why they take it, about their pasts, and frankly it is horrifying.  None of them lead a life I envy. If it comes down to an addict’s last fiver and they have to choose between food and a bag of brown, the smack will win every time. When the drug hits them it brings a huge sense of relief and pleasure to what has probably been another crap day, and they need it to stop withdrawing, they will worry about food later.

  1. No one wants to be at a foodbank or soup kitchen

I really do think people underestimate the role of shame and stigma when it comes to foodbanks and food charity. Every single person I have worked with has told me of the shame of being in need of free food.  It’s something even I have felt many times when doing this research. I remember queuing up on Friday night in Middlesbrough with my participants waiting for a church serving hot meals to open.  There would always be a queue and people walking past used to look at us, some didn’t react but some did, it didn’t take a genius to work out what we waiting for.  Even though I didn’t need food as I was there for research, I felt very conscious and some people looked at me and my participants like we were dirt, some gave us a sympathetic look, some just looked at us like we were circus freaks.  Either way, going and asking for free food is hard.

  1. It’s not just foodbanks we need to be worried about

You will notice in the title of this blog and throughout I haven’t just mentioned foodbanks, but also used the broad term of food aid.  I basically used the word foodbanks to hook you in, because its phrase we are all pretty familiar with now.  For my research, I didn’t work with the Trussell Trust (the largest and most well-known foodbank franchise) in fact I didn’t even work with many smaller independent foodbanks.  What I worked with was a mixture of soup kitchens (although not many served soup), community meals and breakfast clubs all aimed at those struggling.

Now what is incredibly worrying about this, is they are not counted in any sort of statistics on food poverty.  Unlike the Trussell Trust who keeps data on use, soup kitchens and community meals don’t.  Can you see the problem here? Food insecurity is a much bigger problem than we thought.  When I started working with a group of men in Middlesbrough I very wrongly assumed they had all used Trussell Trust foodbanks and perhaps had exhausted their limit of the three vouchers rule.  I remember sitting with a participant ‘Shaun’ and he made me a coffee at a free food site and handed me my polystyrene cup, and I turned to him and said “have you used a Trussell trust foodbank?” He scrunched his face in confusion and said “Trussell Trust never heard of it darl”.  I almost past out from shock, I wanted to make sure so whipped my phone out googling the logo of the Trussell Trust as well as the distinctive red voucher. He continued to shake his head while looking at my phone.  I went round asking others, most having the same reaction as Shaun.  This means we have people who are food insecure but who are not represented in any kind of data on food insecurity.

labeled can lot on shelves
Photo by edwin josu00e9 vega ramos on Pexels.com
  1. Foodbanks are not a good thing

Not long before I started my fieldwork I was invited to an opening of a new foodbank warehouse, a bigger one.  I pondered over what was the point of this event, was it a celebration? Was it an event to raise awareness of foodbank use? Or a chatting point for all local people to discuss? To this day I still don’t really know.  I arrived at an industrial unit and found the warehouse and was shocked at how enormous it was, racks filled with the usual Tesco everyday value beans etc.  Volunteers of the foodbank were delighted at how much space they had and weren’t going to trip over a box full of spaghetti hoops anymore in the old cramped space.

There was some tables set out with a small buffet of sandwiches and cakes from Marks and Spencer’s and it just felt inherently wrong to me and I was very uncomfortable during the whole event.  While we sat and stuffed our faces, we were surrounded wall to wall with tins of food destined for people desperate in the area. I thought any minute now there will be some champagne.  Luckily during a speech a Bishop did state this was a not a celebration.

I see similar events to this all the time, people taking selfies when donating food to foodbanks and I don’t really know why.  Foodbanks are not a good thing, yes what they do is good, they feed people in a state of crisis, but we should not be welcoming and celebrating their existence and the rapid expanse for their need.

  1. I speak from a privileged position

Being in poverty is not just about having no money, it’s about your moral worth in society and people love to judge those who have nothing. I hear these moral judgments all the time “they use a foodbank but they have an iPhone”, emm… who the fuck doesn’t have an iPhone? Maybe they need that iPhone for job searches and getting in touch for interviews, maybe they took out the contract for iPhone before they fell on hard times, maybe they stole it? Who knows? Or my all-time favourite “they have a huge fifty inch flat screen TV”. Again what kind of TV is available now? Maybe it’s from Brighthouse and they are still paying it off.

What I am trying to say is its ok for us to sit and judge and say “well if only they did this”, “if only they didn’t buy that”.  The reality is you really don’t know what you would do if you were in their shoes. It is OK for us to say we would do X, Y, Z but we speak from a position of relative privilege, it’s easy to say these things when you have food on the table.

  1. Foodbanks are designed not to be abused

Again I wish people would educate themselves about foodbanks before making such grand claims about foodbank use, when they have no idea how they work.  I hear a lot about people’s fears about certain people ‘repeatedly abusing foodbanks’ basically using them all the time.  When I hear this my eyes immediately roll back into my skull. Like seriously? Like the Trussell Trust didn’t think of this?  The Trussell Trust do not want people dependent on foodbanks.  It is not easy to access a Trussell Trust foodbank, you can’t just walk in and ask for a parcel.  You have be referred by a recognised professional agency like a GP, social worker etc. Foodbanks are not open every day, seven days a week either, you can only go at certain times. You are also limited to three vouchers in a six month period. So this idea that people are permanently relying on foodbanks is either not true or a very small minority.

  1. I fear foodbanks are now here to stay in the UK

The future of food banking in the UK is something I think a lot about. What next for foodbanks? Sadly I am quite pessimistic about it all and I really feel foodbanks are here to stay. They have very quickly become a part of society and unfortunately an initiative that a lot of people have fallen in love with as a good idea.  People adore the concept of foodbanks because it gives the impression something is being done about tackling food insecurity in the UK.  The reality is foodbanks are just quick fix for the multitude of problems sometimes facing those in need of them, they don’t really solve anything.  You wouldn’t put a sticking plaster on stab wound would you? It’s the same with food banking. We need to look at the actual causes of foodbank use and food insecurity as a whole, which points the fin

ger of blame in most instances firmly towards a VERY broken welfare state.

  1. Stop focusing on foodbank users

When I was studying for my master’s degree I was chatting with some fellow students about social class and a fellow student from Norway laughed and said “ah you British are obsessed with class and poor people, it is all you ever talk about”.  We all laughed at the time but she has a very good point.  As a society, we don’t necessarily love to talk about class openly, but we do love to absolutely slate people who have very little. I’ve never known a society that thrives on being so nasty to those who have nothing, yet those who have everything can get away with – it seems – anything. I will end with this little reminder: you begrudge people using a foodbank, for a carrier bag full of soup and beans, but its fine for Ian Duncan Smith to claim £39 for a bloody breakfast! I’ll just leave this here for people to think about.


Kate Haddow is a full time PhD student at Teesside University. Her PhD is looking at local and diverse religious responses to poverty in Middlesbrough, and how religious communities are fighting poverty and inequality and whether their responses are adequate. Kate’s wider research interests are; social class, poverty, foodbank use and social inequality. You can follow her on Twitter @KateHaddow1.

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