But it was the right choice. We heard how people increasingly use food banks because of delays in their benefits, benefit sanctions (which can be ‘inhumane’, with 12 weeks’ cessation of benefits), debt, health and mental health issues and young people leaving care homes at 18 without the ability to live independently.
It is impressive that, as food poverty has increased, churches and others have launched 11 food banks in the city. Even so, according to Chris Mariott, ‘gatherer’ of the food bank network, coverage is inadequate, with important areas, such as Manor and Castle, not yet covered. Moreover, there is the problem of people being unable to cook.
We heard from Kate Housden, who had studied food poverty for the recent Sheffield Fairness Commission, that one fifth of households in the city were in poverty and that food poverty was increasing. The Commission had backed food banks and other forms of emergency food relief. Kate saw a major challenge in the ‘outrageous’ extent of food waste and called for Council leadership to tackle this with the supermarkets. Maggie Riley of Barnsley-based Fair Share believed that there was goodwill in the big supermarkets to redistribute food that otherwise would go to waste.
Councillor Julie Dore, Leader of the Council, saw food banks as primarily a voluntary sector initiative. But the Council had put aside £1 million for following up the Fairness Commission, and some of this money might be used to help build up infrastructure for food initiatives. She also hoped to involve health bodies in the city in tackling food poverty. Her colleague, Councillor Jack Scott, wanted in the longer run to put food banks out of business, but meanwhile was prepared to help them with free use of Council premises and a special fund, while also giving food bank users priority for allotments.
The plight of children was emphasised. The Revd Louise Collins, who leads the Firvale food bank, reported that some Firvale children could not afford to pay at their school breakfast club. Councillor Jackie Drayton said that some schools misdirected the pupil premium of £600 into general education. It should be spent on, for example, free breakfasts, as lack of food affected ability to learn.
Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, while welcoming the growth of food banks, was concerned that they should not become ‘institutionalised’ as in the USA and Canada. He was reassured that at this stage they were modest practical organisations through which volunteers (mainly from churches) gave ‘humble service’ to their communities.
It was a valuable and constructive discussion. But Beveridge would have been shocked at such a discussion taking place a full 70 years after he produced his great Report advocating the welfare state and among other things slaying the giant evil of ‘want’.
This is a guest post by David Price from our local group in Sheffield.