What do you think of when someone says the words: “Food Poverty”? Your mind probably jumps straight to charity appeals on TV, countries struck by disaster or images of people at the other ends of the world living a life so different from your own. However, the reality is that the issue of food poverty is so much closer to home than you may think. The UK is the seventh richest country in the world. Despite this, our wealth is by no means evenly distributed and one in five people live below the poverty line and face rising food, housing and energy costs with little hope of increased income. This means that more and more people are struggling to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis. This in turn can lead to other problems such as depression and anxiety as well as potentially encouraging individuals to turn to lenders and loan sharks or even illegal means of obtaining money or food. In short, the issue of food poverty in the UK is current and in desperate need of address.

So why has food poverty become so prevalent in the UK? There are various possible reasons for this, though the most likely explanation is that while the price of living has increased, employment rates and incomes have not and many households struggle to provide sufficient and nutritious meals on a low budget. Another contributing factor to the UKs food poverty situation is the current social security system. Various cuts to benefits as well as harsh sanctions have led to many individuals struggling in times when they should be supported by their Governments welfare system. For instance, those receiving Jobseekers Allowance can be sanctioned for not attending appointments at the Jobcentre or not providing evidence of searching for work. However, it has been argued that the system of sanctions has been established too quickly with little guidance and training for Jobcentre staff, resulting in many job seekers not being aware of or fully understanding what is expected of them until after their benefits have been sanctioned. The sudden delay or change to benefits can have a devastating effect on individuals and can lead to them struggling to feed themselves and their families.

Ultimately, the increase in food poverty had led to widespread use of foodbanks which are usually established in local churches and community centres and are run by volunteers. The banks rely on donations of non-perishable food from the public which is then sorted by volunteers and arranged into 3-day food parcels. Professionals such as GPs, social workers, police etc give food vouchers to needy individuals who then exchange the voucher for a food parcel at their local foodbank. Since 2004, the Trussell Trust has launched 400 foodbanks with the ultimate aim of establishing a community-run foodbank in every town. The foodbanks provide support to a wide range of clients, including families, students, single parents, the elderly and vulnerable individuals etc. The causes for these clients referral can range from unemployment and debt to homelessness and domestic violence, although some of the most common reasons are delays to benefits, low incomes and benefit changes.

The work of foodbanks provides much needed support to those facing food poverty, however, there are still various problems facing both the operation of the banks and the effective support given to their clients. Foodbanks face a variety of practical difficulties, including gathering sufficient donations to meet the growing need for food parcels as well as having enough volunteers to run the banks. In the past year, the demand for emergency food has almost tripled, with the Trussell Trust foodbanks distributing 913,138 parcels in 2013-2014, in comparison to the 346,992 given in 2012-2013. Potential clients face issues of stigma and fear of social exclusion, with many individuals refusing to seek help due to shame or a feeling of personal failure. A report by Church Action on Poverty concluded that the way poverty is addressed by both politicians and the media contributes to the stigma, with some individuals considered deserving of assistance and others merely considered “scroungers” whose financial difficulties can be dismissed. Finally, there is the crucial issue that foodbanks can only do so much and can only ever be a short term solution. The real question is what can be done to solve the root causes of food poverty, such as addressing the discrepancies in benefit payments caused by the sanctions of the current welfare system and discussing how food can be made more affordable and available for people living on a low income. But what can YOU do to assist in the valuable work of foodbanks and to ease the effects of food poverty in your local area?:

  • Support your local foodbanks. This could be done by donating non-perishable food, either to the bank directly or by simply donating food items at a supermarket collection. Alternatively, you could volunteer at a bank itself to assist in sorting the donations and distributing the food parcels to clients. Use trusselltrust.org to find your nearest foodbank.
  • Get in touch with your MP and see what they are doing to tackle the issue of food poverty in your area. Whether you write a letter or send a tweet, by communicating dissatisfaction with the current failure to address food poverty, you can encourage something to be done.

For more information about foodbanks and food poverty in the UK, please visit the following websites:

www.trusselltrust.org

http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/

http://www.oxfam.org.uk/

Also – don’t forget to check out the Vinspired campaign on Twitter (#beyondfood). This campaign is being run throughout the UK by groups of young volunteers who are inspiring social change within their communities by raising awareness of food poverty and assisting local foodbanks.