Yesterday’s figures of the number of people using Foodbanks shows the remarkable popularity of a new concept to Britain – though familiar in Europe since the 1980s and spreading today in rich nations like Germany.
In Gloucester as elsewhere there has been a big rise in customers since our Foodbank opened in the early part of the Great Recession, and since I first visited in 2008. Why?
No-one knows all the answers. Some, with a clear agenda, blame it on government welfare policies. Others like Robin Aitken, founder of the Oxford Foodbank, say simply that if you provide a service people will use it. He points out that we don’t know how many people would have used the service in the past because Foodbanks haven’t been around that long and says that trying to politicise Foodbanks is wrong: there is no evidence that if benefits were increased the
number of users would decrease.
I believe there are many reasons why people go to the Foodbank. One is it’s simply easier to get the vouchers needed: this government has allowed Job Centres and others, like my own constituency office, to issue them.
Another is that Foodbanks are simpler than government provided benefits: there is no detailed analysis or means testing of the individual situation of each applicant required (no taxpayer funds are involved). Nor are there any other
barriers, including nationality. German media report worries that Rumanians and Bulgarians are using their Foodbanks, but they’re open to all.
So not all our users in Great Western Road are from the city or Gloucestershire or even the UK. Some of the users are the same person coming again: and there is no precise means test of who comes.
This is the same for people who go to the Cathedral breakfast or Salvation Army lunch (both free): if there was a free breakfast and lunch every day, more people would go. And if every church did the same every day I have no doubt
many more people would go.
But would that show people were much poorer than generations ago, or before the war when older residents remember children going to St Pauls bare footed and doctors’ fees paid with home grown veg?
We don’t know what individuals going to the Foodbank do in terms of work or how spend whatever money they earn or receive from benefits, or who and where are their family and friends and how they help.
I do know anecdotally from CAB advisors that some of the many who get into debt issues spend their benefits money on alcohol or drugs: and once trapped by a loan shark in many cases they DO struggle to afford anything, including food.
These are complex situations, often involving mental health and money alone won’t help, though we do need our Credit Union to reach out more, to be more effective and better known – volunteers would make a real difference.
We also know that spending priorities differ around the county. Almost everyone in the city today expects to have a mobile. 20 years few, if any, would. There will be rural poor, far from and unable to get to a Foodbank, desperately poor, and lonely – but maybe growing potatoes and other veg at home and not owning a mobile. Are they better or worse off than those with occasional access to a Foodbank?
In Gloucester my constituents are generous with time and money. This essentially christian response I’ve seen when out with Anne-Liese and volunteers encouraging food donations at the Quedgeley Tesco: or my own Rotary community committee. We all know that many struggle, and it is right to help without asking too many questions.
But if we want to understand WHY there is such a big rise in the use of Foodbanks it will take a credible and non political research group some time to analyse different social trends. This should definitely include looking as cases where transferring from eg DLA to Pip benefits or ESA to JSA involved unnecessary delay of payments. It should include whether work assessments (WCA) have led to increased paperwork, transition of benefits and hardship for some of our most vulnerable. (I think it has but the numbers are small compared to the numbers of users of Foodbanks).
But it should also include a wider look at the community around each user of the Foodbank: who else can help with the wider issues they may have? What is the role of faith and charities?
I believe research may show that it is a good thing that Foodbanks exist, that people donate and volunteer, and that as the economy grows, more people work and wages increase over inflation but using Foodbank stats to beat government isn’t much of an answer.
What is happening looks to me more complex, a nation wide and Europe wide issue, and asks questions of us all as humans and members of families.
So because we don’t know what would happen to Foodbanks if the minimum wage were tripled and everyone employed I back Bishop Michael’s call for more research. I would rather it was done by eg the Centre for Social Justice because this is an issue for all society, not just for government.