In her speech from The future of social justice event we held on Monday, Kayleigh Garthwaite, author of Hunger Pains, talks about her experience of volunteering at foodbanks and how we can harness and express the collective shame that should be felt over the existence of emergency food aid.
Every week, I prepared the three days’ worth of food that goes into each food parcel. I dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was told where it could be obtained. I volunteered at food collections at Tesco supermarkets, asking people to add an extra tin to their weekly shop. Most importantly, I sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the food bank doors for emergency food.
Foodbanks are fast becoming an ever more normalised and visible part of austerity Britain. The phrase ‘foodbank’ has silently slipped into our everyday speech. Most supermarkets have donation points for collecting pet food for rescue cats and dogs. Now, right next to these collections for abandoned animals are donation points with stickers plastered on them imploring people to ‘Please donate food’. The Co-op has advertised its value range of tinned products as ‘ideal items for the foodbank’, and Asda has placed Trussell Trust emblazoned signs on their shelves underneath tins of Spam saying ‘This is a foodbank item’.
“In the last financial year, over 1.1 million three-day emergency food supplies were given out to people in crisis”
There were no UK-focused newspaper articles about foodbank use before 2008 and few until 2012 when the number increased dramatically. In 2004 the Trust ran only two foodbanks. Today, there are over 400, but overall they run 1500 foodbank centres.
In the last financial year, over 1.1 million three-day emergency food supplies were given out to people in crisis by Trussell Trust foodbanks, including 415,866 children. And this isn’t taking into account the many independent foodbanks that help thousands upon thousands of people every day, with possibly less than half of all food banks being organised by the Trussell Trust.
My research, as well as that of other academics, charities and frontline professionals showed that a major reason for people using foodbanks was the impact of welfare reform. It was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons that brought people through the food bank doors were ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy.
“Addiction is seen as a ‘lifestyle choice’ – but only if you are the ‘undeserving’ poor.”
Despite the very obvious connection between the cuts to social security and foodbank use, government ministers have consistently refused to admit to a link between the two, instead choosing to dismiss foodbank use as a lifestyle choice of those who are unable to budget properly or those who would rather spend their money on 20 fags, a flat screen TV and three litres of strong cider. Addiction is seen as a ‘lifestyle choice’ – but only if you are the ‘undeserving’ poor.
The second series of the TV show ‘Benefits Street’ was set on Kingston Road on the Tilery estate in Stockton on Tees, just one mile away from the foodbank I volunteered in. Aired in May 2015, just after the General Election, the opening episode of the second series of pulled in almost 3 million viewers. ‘Tourists’ flocked to the Tilery estate, driving hundreds of miles for a glimpse at the road, and the ‘Kingston Road’ street sign was reportedly sold on eBay for £65,000. The show placed a magnified emphasis on frequent criminal activity, unemployment, and a lack of education. What it didn’t tell you is that the life expectancy of men living in the poorest parts of Stockton, like the Tilery estate, has barely improved since the 1930s. A man living in the most deprived ward will live, on average, 17.3 years less than a man living just a few miles down the road in the least deprived ward. This difference is comparable to the difference in average male life expectancy between the UK and Russia or Senegal.
Despite the rhetoric around poverty and benefits being a lifestyle choice, support for foodbanks has been overwhelming. Last year, some 40,000 people volunteered with Trussell Trust, and 10,573 tonnes of food were donated. Smiling volunteers, myself included, man the so called ‘neighbourhood donations’ twice a year in Tesco supermarket, encouraging people to pick up and extra tin of soup, or packet of pasta, on their weekly shop.
Many people are happy to offer charitable assistance to foodbanks but this should not be to the exclusion of asking why, in one of the richest countries in the world, more than one million emergency food parcels were handed out last year. But we need to remember that behind every tin of food donated is a person with a reason for being there, and we need to listen to them.
Former Conservative MP Edwina Currie has suggested that:
“Kindly food bank operators rarely have the resources to visit recipients at home. One imagines they would get as incensed as I do at the well-fed dogs, the obligatory wide-screen TVs, the satellite dishes, the manicures and mobiles”.
Well, as a ‘kindly’ foodbank volunteer I have visited people in their homes. Are there people who used the foodbank who had big TVs, tattoos, smoked and had cars? Yeah, of course there were. Sometimes these were signs left over from a previous life when their wages paid for their car, or their 24 month contract on an iPhone 6 each month. More often than not, I saw empty spaces where a TV once stood. The only manicured nails I saw were my own. I saw well fed dogs, but they didn’t incense me. What incensed me was hearing how people were getting by, day by day, trying to stave off their hunger pains by drinking endless cups of Value range coffee. Skipping meals so their children were able to eat, even if it meant rapid weight loss and anaemia for the mother.
My research shows how it was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit sanctions and delays, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. There is no doubt that the reasons people need to use them in the first place are messy, complicated and multiple. Ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy were significant factors.
“I haven’t got enough food to feed myself, let alone feed her as well – how can you explain that to an 11-year-old?”
I met Janice, 46, who was receiving Jobseekers Allowance after being found fit for work, despite recently being diagnosed with depression, anxiety and arthritis. She was waiting for her Employment and Support Allowance appeal, and came to the foodbank because she’d been sanctioned. Janice explained how she was currently doing a Health and Social Care course at college. She had been sanctioned for missing her Jobcentre appointment because she was at college, on a course the Jobcentre had actually sent her on. Her 11-year-old granddaughter wanted to know why she hadn’t been able to stay over for the last three weeks.
Janice told me: ‘I haven’t got enough food to feed myself, let alone feed her as well – how can you explain that to an 11-year-old?’ Janice hadn’t told her daughters how bad things had got as she didn’t want them to worry. She had debts, including priority debts such as Council Tax, which meant the bailiffs were always ringing up, or coming round banging on her front door. As we sat finishing off our cups of tea, her phone rang. She looked at the number flashing up on the screen and sighed “See? I told you they always ring me up,” cancelling the call, as it was the bailiffs ringing her, yet again.
Yes, foodbank use is complex, but that doesn’t mean the government should dismiss evidence linking sanctions and their use. Denial only sends further people heading towards foodbank doors, and does nothing to address the serious structural problems of poverty and inequality that are becoming increasingly embedded within the social security system.
The long-term goal should be shutting foodbanks down because they are not required anymore, not creating bigger and better versions of them. Foodbanks should not be allowed to be a permanent part of our society. Foodbanks cannot simply let the state withdraw from its responsibilities. They must be seen as shocking and outrageous if we are to ever get rid of them.
The big challenge is ensuring that emergency food support continues to be seen by the public as a consequence of food poverty and inequality, rather than a permanent solution. We need to listen to the stories and the voices of people foodbanks so that we can understand who uses them, why, and what it feels like. Perhaps these messages are reaching a wider audience now with Ken Loach’s latest award winning film I, Daniel Blake, which has been called ‘a rallying cry for social justice’ with its depiction of the inefficient and often cruel bureaucracy of the benefits system. It is hard to not feel empathy when watching the lead character Katie in the haunting foodbank scene, or in witnessing Daniel’s day to day struggles in applying for job after job, despite being unfit for work.
“We must confront, challenge and question the popular and pernicious idea that people living in poverty are the architects of their own misfortune.”
But it is hugely important to make sure that the messages in the film, as well as the messages we’re talking about on this panel tonight, are heard not just by people who are sympathetic to what we have to say, but also by people who don’t quite believe that the benefits system is really that bad, or who are adamant that poverty is a lifestyle choice. How we harness and express the collective shame that should be felt over the existence of emergency food aid, but also on a wider level the threats to social justice posed by the language and stereotyping of people living in poverty, will be key to the future of social justice in the UK.
We need a new conversation about poverty that looks at the actual, lived experience of people who are living through it. We need to talk about the impossibility of managing when waiting three weeks for a delayed benefit payment, or when a benefits sanction means 6 months with zero income. We need a benefits system that does not send people towards foodbanks, and one that works for all. We need to think about poorly paid, insecure work which doesn’t protect people from poverty. We need to realise just how damaging the stigma, shame and negativity cruelly attached to people experiencing the sharp end of austerity can be, and how this can worsen already poor health. Humanising the experience of poverty would help to remove the stigma, shame and ideas of ‘undeservingness’ that are so prevalent. Above all, we must confront, challenge and question the popular and pernicious idea that people living in poverty are the architects of their own misfortune.”
Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.
The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.