- by Martin Caraher
- Professor of Food and Health Policy/Thinker in Residence Deakin University, Melbourne (February 2013)
- Centre for Food Policy, Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Social Sciences, City University London
There has been recent concern in public heath circles with the media reporting that the UK has opted out of the new EU Social Welfare Fund scheme, which began in January 2014. This replaced the ‘Food Aid Programme to the Most Deprived Persons in the Community’, commonly known as the MDP programme ran from 1987 to December 2013. The reporting has focussed on the issue that by opting out of the new scheme that food banks in the UK cannot access food or funds from the new scheme for those in need. While this is true and a consequence of the opting out (Hansard 2012), there are deeper – and maybe hidden – issues to be addressed.
These relate to the role of food banks in our society and the right to food for citizens as well as questioning why such a need exists? While food banks have captured the public imagination and grown from one in 2000 to over 400 today their emergence raises questions over the roll back of the state around food welfare and the role of charity as a replacement. Focusing on the supply of food to food banks while it may be important does not address the fundamental question of the place and role of food banks in a welfare society.
In the UK the methods of operation and funding of food banks varies. However, they generally rely on donations from retailers and to a lesser extent the general public. In the UK Food bank provision is broadly provided by two schemes currently in operation. The key provider of food banks in the UK is the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity which franchises its model to local groups allowing them access to food supply sources and the use of publicity materials. In the three months to the end of September 2013, 356,000 people received three days of free food from one of the 400 + food banks in the Trussell Trust network.
The second major operator is FareShare which collects surplus food from supermarkets and shops and distributes it through 720 charities and organisations to needy families and individuals feeding one million people every month. It itself does not operate outlets but distributes to those who do, some of which might be food banks but others could be homeless charities, shelters or soup kitchens. Aside from this there two schemes there are many other food banks operating on their own either as independent charities or part of existing community groups, see Milestone London for an example of a group setting up a food bank for the Muslim community.
So we are seeing increases in the number of food banks and also a divergence in delivery to specific groups. Such initiatives might be welcomed under the Big Society banner; the PM has praised the work of food bank volunteers, although the Work and Pensions Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith is on record as accusing the Trussell Trust of expanding by nefarious means when he said:
I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I’m concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear.
Many contend that the rise in the numbers using food banks is indicative of household food poverty, while the official government line is that there is no evidence that the welfare reforms are contributing to the rise in numbers using food banks. There remain unanswered questions as to the abilities and appropriateness of food banks to tackle food poverty in the long-term and as to their ability to provide healthy food, even in the short term. Underfed people are also likely to be badly fed, leading to long-term health problems. This problem of supply is because of the reliance on donations and surplus/waste food stocks.
There is a body of work examining the mechanics and efficiency of operation of food banks and their contribution to nutrient health outcomes but few, UK focussed, questioning their social relevance. Dowler and colleagues (2001) argued that such schemes perpetuate food poverty by enabling the problems in rich societies to remain marginalised.
Looking to the situation in Canada which has a long history of food banks, Riches, (2002) asserts that those seeking assistance do so repeatedly and become dependent on food aid; as what starts as an emergency response risks becoming entrenched in civic society, a la Big Society model.
Such depoliticisation of food poverty and normalisation of food bank usage can have profound consequences not just for the users of food banks but for society as a whole -‘[T]his is precisely what government wishes to hear and it helps them promote their argument that it is only in partnership with the community that the hunger problem can be solved.’ (Riches 1997)
So while decrying the opting put of the new European Social Welfare Fund it needs to be understood that the UK decision was based on issues of subsidiarity and the right of the UK to determine its own solutions. The principle has much wider implications for the UK in terms of the part it plays in European policy formation.
The debate reported in Hansard (2012) concerning the social fund is nothing more than political mud slinging with MPs, across the political divide, accusing each other of being responsible for the increase in the number of food banks but no discussion on the determinants of food poverty.
In fact, the new The Social Welfare Fund is a cohesion policy justified by Article 174 of the Amsterdam Treaty which allows the Union to promote overall harmonious development by pursuing economic, social and territorial cohesion. It is not exclusively focused on food aid. It might be important to note that the Labour government never partook in the MDP programme or other EU initiatives such as the fruit and vegetable to schools scheme.
Additional supplies of food to food banks in the short-term may help but the long-term issues of ensuring a right to appropriate and nutritious food and needs to be addressed. Key to this is how people access food and without having to resort to emergency food provision through food banks. Food banks were set up to meet failings in the welfare state and to provide emergency assistance not to be the long-term providers of food to those in need.
The elephant in the room is not the food banks but the reasons why people are turning to food banks for help.
This is a combination of welfare reforms, increasing pressure on household budgets as income remains static while food and other prices such as fuel increase. The food banks themselves are beginning to be overwhelmed by the needs and the numbers being referred. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, commenting on the UK said the solution was for the government to define social benefits in terms of rights (Justfair 2013).
Thus we need to see food banks as the failure of government to deliver on the right to food. Winne (2009) in his book on the US food system says: “we must seriously examine the role of food banking, which requires that we no longer praise its growth as a sign of our generosity and charity, but instead recognize it as a symbol of our society’s failure to hold government accountable for hunger, food insecurity and poverty” (p.184).
In exercising the principle of subsidiarity and non participation in the new EU Social Welfare Fund the UK government may have limited access to additional food and resources for food banks in the UK; however this should not stop the public health movement from questioning and debating the role and place of food banks in society and looking to government for solutions to food poverty. Food banks are ‘band aid’ and needed to help people in emergency situations. As to what part they play in the longer term remains to be debated.
Dowler, E., Turner, S., with Dobson, B., (2001) Poverty Bites, Food, Health and poor families, London, CPAG.
Hansard. (2012), Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived [Relevant document: Twenty-second Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 86-xxii.] 18 Dec 2012: Column 806, (Accessed 28th October, 2103).
Justfair (2013) Freedom from Hunger: Realising the right to Food in the UK. Doughty Street Chambers, London
Riches, G., (2002) Food Banks and Food Security: Welfare Reform, Human Rights and Social Policy. Lessons from Canada? Social Policy and Administration. Vol. 36, No. 6, pp.648-663.
Riches, G., (1997c) Hunger, food security and welfare policies: issues and debates in First World societies, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 56: 63-74.