By Matthew Brindley
With record numbers of people in work, why are more and more people relying on foodbanks?
This month the Trussell Trust foodbank issued a press release stating that foodbank use remains at a record high, yet almost in the same breath we hear that UK unemployment is at a decade low and benefit sanctions are down. Surely the use of foodbanks – a last resort for those struggling to put food on the table – should be dropping in such an economic climate?
Community Links isn’t a food bank, but in recent years we have been providing food bags for those who come through our doors and who are most in need. As with the Trussell Trust, we have experienced a growing demand for our relatively small stockpile of food, so much so that between June and September last year we actually ran out of provisions and had to turn people away.
For the communities we support in Newham work is no longer a certain route out of poverty as stagnating pay and the increasing cost of living, especially in London, make life less and less affordable. These everyday realities are reflected in the Trussell Trust’s data on the reasons for referrals to their foodbanks. Between 2013/14 and 2015/16 the number of low income referrals rose from 20.3% to 23.3% whilst benefit delays dropped from 30.9% to 27.9% for the same period. Similarly the University of Hull’s Mapping Hunger report found that foodbank use is higher in areas where there are more people in skilled manual work, where people are unable to work due to long-term sickness or disability and areas that are deprived. These findings resound in a place like Newham, where deprivation is high and over half the borough’s residents work for below the London living wage.
No one knows and understands these realities better than Jane, who heads up our reception at Community Links and who is the first point of contact for many local people coming to us for help, advice and support:
“We can’t see people starve – so we give them food. We get people from all walks of life; some people have had their benefits stopped, other people are on low incomes; they’re actually working but can’t afford food for their families. When we haven’t got any food that is a real problem; we give out foodbank vouchers but we know the foodbank is really overrun.”
Generous donations from harvest festival collections in over half-a-dozen schools across Newham make our modest food bags possible, however, there is a limited supply and a growing demand for food. Critically the solution to the escalating issue of food poverty won’t be solved by charities like Community Links and the Trussell Trust providing more food, but by Government addressing the root causes of poverty in our communities. For us these are high housing costs and insecure accommodation, low pay and insecure work, and the problems people face accessing benefits.
In 2013 we blogged on whether foodbanks were becoming part of our welfare system. Since then the number of people turning to the Trussell Trust for emergency food has increased from 346,992 to 1,109,309, with an increasing number of these people being in work. Reflecting on these shocking figures it’s fair to say that consecutive governments have failed to stem the flow of people relying on foodbanks. Even the welcome introduction of the new mandatory national living wage this year will do little to counteract the impact of escalating housing costs, insecure work and the predicted losses for low-income working families on Universal Credit.
To avoid the increasing reliance on foodbanks it’s no longer enough for governments to talk about making work pay and affordable housing. Instead we need to act earlier and build a social security system which values and invests in people’s strengths and capabilities, ensuring they’re secure and ready to both seize opportunities and deal with setbacks. Key to this is ensuring a house is a home, especially for vulnerable families who too often see their employment, education and social opportunities dashed as a result of accommodation insecurity.