Just in case you are wondering, more than 1.1 million people used food banks last year. The figure is up on the previous year but only by 2%, which is way down on the colossal increases from 2011/12 onwards. There are 424 food banks operated by the Trussell Group and I am very concerned that they are becoming a normal fact of British life and not just for emergencies. And there is nothing remotely ‘normal’ about people who live in a rich country like ours going without food?
I opened with the line ‘just in case you were wondering’ because the rise in the use of food banks barely gets a mention in the media these days and that may be one of the reasons their very existence is hidden from most of our lives. I am not going to say how, when and why, but I had cause visit one recently and I found it an extremely chastening experience. In fact, I found the whole thing very moving and not in a nice way. I was moved, for sure, by the efforts of the volunteers but I was upset at the the sight of ordinary people effectively having to beg for something to eat, real people with children who also aren’t eating properly. For those of us who casually dip in and out of supermarkets, able within reason to buy whatever we like, it is hard to take in.
The Daily Mail – now there’s a surprise! – tried to do a hatchet job on food banks a couple of years ago, suggesting that the volunteers were innocent and naive whilst all of those visiting were skivers, trying to get something for nothing. I saw nothing like that at all. What struck me was the number of working people who were using the service. The figures suggest something like a quarter of those visiting food banks are in low paid work. My admittedly anecdotal observations was that the figure was greater than this, but those who were on benefits did not seem to look like the ones George Osborne is constantly banging on about. They were not shifty and feckless: they were people who didn’t have enough, or in some cases any, food to eat.
Iain Duncan Smith resigned from his job at the DWP recently because of government cuts to benefits, but hang on a minute: he’s the man who has already slashed some benefits and abolished others, as well as introducing a vicious programme of benefit sanctions. Have you ever seen a clinically depressed disabled man forced to beg for food because the DWP has suspended his benefits? A clinically depressed disabled man who would love to work if he could, in tears because he had no food. I have and it made me both upset and very angry at the same time. He could have said, “What have I done to deserve this?” but he didn’t, his will sapped by the system.
Here’s another amazing statistic about food banks. How many people using them are unemployed? 50%? 60%? 70%? No, 5%. More homeless people use food banks than do the unemployed, more people in debt use food banks than the unemployed.
But wait for this: of the Trussell Group’s client base, some 400,000 are children. Can you imagine that, in a so called civilised society? That to me is the worst statistic of them all. People at the start of their lives, condemned to a forgotten world of hunger and despair. So much for social mobility, fairness and equality.
“I have no problem with food banks,” said Mr Duncan Smith, in his usual caring, sharing way. Well, I have. They should not be there at all. Well, they should be there, right here and right now, because without them people might die, but in a country where the government cuts taxes for the very richest people of them all, could we not have a little compassion for those who have nothing, literally nothing?
The public seems to care a lot more than the politicians who are probably too busy filling out their expenses forms because they – we – donated something like 11 million tonnes of food to the Trussell Group this year.
Welcome to the new norm, food banks. It’s not right, is it?