The issue is one of justice — simply the right to live

Hunger is widespread in Britain and requires drastic intervention, writes PAUL DONOVAN

The question must be why so many foodbanks, not how many can we create?

A recent report on foodbanks showed growing demand for their services and made a recommendation for bigger and better facilities.

The worry though is that the charity-based foodbank network will not only become institutionalised but could also be co-opted into providing a charitable alternative to the welfare state.

The Trussell Trust, which runs the nationwide network of foodbanks, reports 913,000 going to foodbanks over the past year — an increase of 129,000.

The trust points out that there have been 500,000 people coming to foodbanks in the six-month period between April and September this year, 38 per cent more than for the comparable period last year.

Currently, 45 per cent of foodbank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions, and 22 per cent of the 500,000 that came cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis.

So foodbanks are flourishing. The question though must be what should their role be moving forward?

An excellent report funded by the Church of England and compiled by the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty has credited the foodbanks for staging “a social Dunkirk.”

The Feeding Britain report makes three main recommendations. First that there are changes to the benefits system to ensure people are not thrown into poverty.

Second that low pay must be addressed, which means the living wage being implemented across the country — £7.85 an hour and £9.15 in London — thereby putting more money into people’s pockets.

The third suggestion is the creation of a new generation of “super” foodbanks, which combine food aid with welfare advice and advocacy. This network of foodbanks would bring together the existing players with supermarkets and the state.

It is this third recommendation that some see as a step toward institutionalising foodbanks as a permanent fixture, rather than seeing them as a temporary measure to deal with a hunger crisis.

The story of foodbanks in Canada provides a salutary lesson.

Foodbanks were introduced in Canada in the early 1980s in what was perceived as a tough economic time.

There are now 700 foodbanks in Canada providing help to 800,000 people. The number has increased by nearly 100,000 over the past six years — as the country has come out of economic recession. There have been an abundance of low-income jobs created as part of the economic recovery — sound familiar?

Writing in the Guardian, Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, tells how foodbanks have become a second tier of the benefits system in Canada.

“The sad fact is that in Canada, with its 30-year track record of increasingly corporatised food charity, recent national data show that one in eight households or 3.9 million individuals — 11.6 per cent of the population — are still experiencing food insecurity,” said Riches, who criticises the Feeding Britain report for only addressing the supply side of the question and thereby recommending “a vanguard role for the charitable food industry and food waste in the battle against structurally caused food poverty.”

He argues: “this can only lead to the long-term institutionalisation of foodbanking and diminish political appetite for progressive reform.”

Riches warns that in Canada, the food charity industry has fostered the depoliticisation of hunger and its social construction as a matter primarily for community and corporate charity, and not a human rights question demanding the urgent attention of the state.

“Today, Canadian public perception of food charity is that it should take care of domestic hunger. Governments can look the other way,” said Riches, who suggests that a right to food should be entrenched in domestic law backed by international statute, then the obligation to deal with hunger would be put fully back under the responsibility of the state.

The net result of simply expanding the foodbank network is that Churches and charities can continue to feel good about helping out the poor in a purely charitable way, while the corporations gain a good helping of positive PR from their growing involvement in these ventures.

In the meantime, the numbers going to foodbanks and living under the poverty line continues to grow. The issue has to be one of justice, put very simply, the right to live.

The dangers with some of the recommendations of the Feeding Britain report is that, if followed, they could pave the way for further demolition of the welfare state in the belief that foodbanks and other charitable institutions will pick up the slack. It also provides a chance for companies to effectively profit out of hunger.

The recommendations about addressing low pay via the living wage are welcome but there needs to be a far more fundamental effort to put the need for a million people to go to foodbanks in a rich First World country at the door of a government that has deliberately engineered such a situation.

It would be a true irony if a virtuous charitable endeavour like foodbanks evolved into a back-door means to further emasculate the welfare state and build further the low-pay economy.

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