Truth and lies about food banks

Britain Isn't EatingRecently I was sent links to two blogs about food banks, both on very reputable websites. As coordinator of the Joint Public Issues Team’s work on food banks, the sender thought, rightly, I’d be interested.

This is a guest blog by Andrew Bradstock.

Indeed, my heart leapt when I saw the title of one – by Katie Hopkins – was ‘The Real Reason Food Banks Have Trebled’. Like Church Action on Poverty and many others, I’ve being saying for a while that we need some robust research into what’s behind the ever-increasing demand for food banks, so I looked forward to studying what the writer had to say.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the piece to contain little but uninformed opinion and prejudice.

Not a minute had been spent conducting serious investigation or first-hand interviews with food bank users or workers. Instead, readers were offered unattributed quotes from “a food bank user” and “the agencies that issue vouchers”, and claims about people putting on “Oscar-winning performances” to obtain free food and “playing the system”.

The conclusion drawn from this carefully-garnered evidence? The growth in food banks is not due to more people being hungry but “largely because we are feeding the dirty habits of people perfectly happy to live a life on the take”.

The other blog, by Edwina Currie, was slightly more measured but no better informed, even though the data the author needed was there if she’d looked. When it first appeared – before, to its credit, the website corrected it* – it described the Trussell Trust, which runs a food bank in Salisbury and provides heavy-duty support to more than 400 others, as a “tiny organisation [that] doesn’t run a single food bank [but] merely advises church and community groups on how to”. Other claims were that free food “helps support the black economy” and “encourages more of what it seeks to relieve”, and that food banks put local shops out of business – why run a corner shop “if enough local residents get their groceries free”? Food banks also encourage people to stay on benefits which provide them with “far more than they might earn”.

Given the impact their pieces would have, one might have thought these writers would have checked the veracity of their claims and researched the issue beforehand. But such pieces are just part of a trend, highlighted by our Team’s report The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending comfortable myths about poverty, aimed at creating ever wider divisions in our society by promoting opinions over facts and myths over evidence.

One particularly depressing aspect of these pieces, and of many others on poverty and welfare, is the assumption they carry that the sort of people who use food banks are “not like us” and we’ll never “be like them”.

At the same time as I was reading the above pieces I received another article, this time recounting the story of a couple who had turned up at a food bank in the Midlands. It’s too long to relate in full here, but it traced their decline from hard-working farmers to homelessness and hunger via: a serious injury to the man leading his wife to give up work to care for him; two poor harvests leading to bankruptcy; hip and knee problems to the woman untreatable on the NHS due to her young age; and confusion about keeping up National Insurance payments for both parties.

Sadly this is not an atypical story, as people who staff food banks know only too well. Among the stories we hear are of working families on low incomes who encounter problems “when something goes wrong with the car or the kids need new shoes”; the young boy whose dad had lost his job and “who was going to school with no breakfast”; the lady “sent home from hospital to no food in the house and no-one to shop for her”.

If as much space were given to making known the real stories behind food bank use as to whipping up revulsion toward their users, then not only might we have a more truthful debate about what’s going on, we might also realise how vulnerable many of us are to a change in our circumstances.

And, if only for that reason, perhaps we might find the collective will to build a better society, one based on the Judaeo-Christian ethic of care for the widow and orphan and ‘the common good’.

* The website (The Spectator magazine) also allowed the Trussell Trust to write a response, correcting what the Trust called the ‘inaccuracies and misleading statements’ in the original blog and pointing out that the writer had never spoken with them nor sought to verify any of her assertions with them.


Andrew Bradstock is a member of the Joint Public Issues Team of the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches – www.jointpublicissues.org.uk

You can find out more, and support our joint work on food banks and food poverty, at www.church-poverty.org.uk/walkingthebreadline/act/questiontime

3 thoughts on “Truth and lies about food banks

  1. Have you seen any comments on the Daily Mail attempt to debunk the bishops letter. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2564429/What-hunger-crisis-Bishops-wrong-welfare-says-Clegg-Deputy-PM-reacts-angrily-claim-safety-net-removed.html ?

    Re today’s You and yours what is local government funding for food banks? Are you comfortable with this? http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03wp6kf also comming up on Panorama?

    what sort of support do food banks give? Is that one parcel or one a week over a sanction?

    • Food bank systems vary – Trussell Trust food banks usually give three day’s food at a time, and limit people to three visits a year.

      The Panorama programme was very good.

      We’re working on a new piece of research into food banks, which will be published in May. It’s likely to refute all the (rather weak) attempts to debunk the statistics in the letter.

  2. I know someone who has been an alcoholic for decades. I met him in the street recently. He was on his way back from the public phone box. He was sweating and shaking.

    He had been telephoning his bank. He had reported his bank card as missing. They had not sent the replacement as he had expected. They now advised him to go into his branch 12 miles away. Could he borrow my phone to call a taxi?

    “Why not get a bus? A taxi will cost a fortune.”

    “Because I’ve got no money.”

    His plan was to get a taxi to the bank, leave the taxi waiting while he explained his situation to the bank and draw out his money, then pay the taxi. It didn’t sound like a good plan to me.

    “I can lend you a tenner,” I said.

    Actually, I couldn’t. I only had a fiver. I nipped home and raided a pound from my child’s piggy bank to give him an extra quid so he had enough for the bus fare.

    Off he went, leaving me with a kind of lender’s remorse. “You absolute idiot!” I told myself. “You’ve just lent an alcoholic £6. You’ll not see that again.”

    Hours passed. Day turned to night. He was back home, I saw him through his window. No sight of that £6.

    Just before I went to bed, there was a knock on the door. He returned the money, plus a thank you card. Apparently it had taken him more than 20 minutes of heated argument to convince the bank to hand him some of his money. That would have been a monster taxi fare.

    He then said he had not eaten for several days while waiting for his bank card to arrive. By then, he was in a haze of gratitude. “What would have happened if I hadn’t have bumped into you? What would I have done?”

    My husband was less than impressed. “You’ll be marked out as a soft touch now,” he said, after the man had gone. I was actually thinking the same thing. It wasn’t a welcome thought.

    My neighbour was even less impressed. The man had first knocked on her door, looking for me, even though he had been to my home several times before. He had presumably got his money, then got so drunk he could not remember how to find me.

    Why am I telling you this story? I think I wanted to explain one set of circumstances in which someone could suddenly find him or herself with absolutely no money whatsoever. He had no friends or family nearby to help him out, and it is those, who have no-one to turn to, who are most vulnerable. The fact that he is an alcoholic is incidental. The fact that as soon as his crisis was over he was drinking again shows exactly how complex these problems can be. There are few quick fixes to anything.

    But my own fears probably reveal an “Edwina” in my psyche. I wasn’t left with some kind of inner glow because despite myself I had done something nice. I was worried about being inconvenienced in the future. Try not to judge her too harshly.

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