Understanding Food Bank Use
Since autumn last year a ‘virtual food bank’ has operated across the Roseland. Truro Food bank, an organisation that distributes free food to local people in crisis from premises in Truro and Highertown, had long been concerned that some people were in real need of help on the Roseland, but couldn’t afford to travel to Truro to access this support. So they have set up a virtual food bank system, where people in need on the Roseland can obtain a voucher from local surgeries, schools and churches and call the number on the voucher to request food aid. A van from Truro Food Bank then delivers food straight to their home.
Whilst commending the volunteers at Truro Food Bank for their initiative and compassion I know many of you will also share my deep concern that such charity could be necessary on our very doorsteps. The growth in food banks is not limited to Cornwall. Since 2005, a network of food aid provision has grown rapidly nationwide, with food banks springing up in churches and community centres across Britain, providing free basic food stuffs to those in need.
The demand for these services is there and is growing further. A Church Action on Poverty report, published in May 2013, estimated that over 500,000 people in the UK were reliant on food aid from a variety of providers. Sadly this figure looks set to be outstripped this year.
The scale of change this represents in the charitable geography of the UK cannot be underestimated. Village halls that used to host jumble sales to raise funds to combat famine continents away now play mute witness to local people waiting to receive free food to meet pressing domestic need.
Change has happened, and it is deeply undesirable.
Like many MPs, from all parties, my first reaction to this developing phenomenon was to focus on doing all I could to help the individuals using food banks. Every week to this day my constituency office team are out and about in local food banks, including Truro and Highertown, offering free and expert benefits, skills, debt management and jobs advice to people collecting food aid.
I am pleased to report that working alongside Foodbank volunteers we have been able to make a real difference, from the pensioner who didn’t know he was eligible for Pension Credit, to the homeless man now in accommodation and training for work.
However, as welcome as these individual resolutions are, they are increasingly not enough. As my own local experiences have taught me, food bank use in the UK is now of such a scale, and the factors driving it so complex, that if we are to have any hope of addressing it, we must first fully understand it.
This is why last month I chaired a conference in Parliament on food aid. The Conference, hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, saw academics from all over the UK come together with food bank volunteers to share their findings on why people are using food banks. This sharing of knowledge was most helpful and revealed that there is currently a paucity of robust evidence for why so many people are using food banks. This gap in understanding has been filled by a highly politicised and emotive debate, generating more heat than light.
I belong to a group in Parliament that is seeking to plug this gap in understanding, building on the knowledge shared at the Conference. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Hunger and Food Poverty has launched an inquiry into hunger and food poverty, and will considering evidence from around the UK. I am privileged to serve as Secretary of the Group, under the Chairmanship of the Rt Hon Frank Field MP and the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Tim Thornton.
The distinctly Cornish complexion of the Group is a reflection of the very real poverty that exists alongside the Duchy’s vibrant culture and undoubted beauty. The Report arising from the Inquiry, due to be published in the autumn, will be an informed and challenging contribution to the debate surrounding food bank usage in Britain, enabling better understanding of the factors behind this phenomenon, with that understanding pointing the way to how we can best address the real need that exists.
I will be submitting an evidence paper myself, drawing on the experience of my team and I in local food banks.
Whilst some on the left have been quick to hijack the debate on food bank use as another means of opposing the Government’s reforms to welfare, I think we should be looking at more long term trends. The Coalition is putting an extra £1 billion into the budget that provides support for the poorest in our society, and has helped over a 1.5 million people into work since 2010.
Help into work, and support for those outside employment, is being boosted, not lessened. As such I believe that we need to look at the bigger picture, at how as the world changes, becoming increasingly complex and globalised, some people are falling through the cracks.
Just as new technologies demand new skills to enable secure and well paid employment, the increasingly online focus of much help and support can be obstacles for some of those that need this help the most. Meanwhile global developments have seen the price of housing, fuel and food rise sharply over the past decade. These factors can combine to cause chronic and sustained food insecurity, leading to food bank use.
I look forward to exploring these themes further with my APPG colleagues and hope that, by increased understanding, we can build a future where food banks, virtual or otherwise, are no longer needed on the Roseland.
To find out more about the APPG inquiry visit www.foodpovertyinquiry.org/
If you would like to support Truro Food Bank visit www.truro.foodbank.org.uk/