Professor Liz Dowler in The Observer: ‘Plight of the families who must rely on food parcels’
I was pleased to see the Observer highlighting struggles many households face in putting food on the table without falling further into debt (“Plight of the families who must rely on food parcels“, Cash). However, the good work done by food banks to help meet immediate needs cannot pass without comment.
Charitable food handouts have a long history, but it seems they are now an acceptable remedy for households both in and out of work in contemporary Britain.
As your article also notes, such systems are being institutionalised: potential clients are referred by professionals; funding for new food banks and volunteer training is sought; your readers are encouraged to donate money and food.
The Trussel Trust (highlighted in the article) emphasises the role of individuals and communities in supporting local families, rather than looking to food sector cast-offs. But the article fails to ask why this should be necessary and what such efficient charitable response obscures.
People resort to food banks when their income (wages or welfare) is too low or when state systems fail (benefits are wrong or delayed). Consistent academic evidence and people’s experience show the minimum wage and state benefits are insufficient to live decently and eat healthily for more than a few months, however skilfully people budget, shop and cook.
The costs of bureaucratic errors should not fall on those already burdened and struggling. Food banks, despite their apparent “win-win” structure, conceal realities of poverty and hunger. They let the state off the hook from their obligation to ensure all have the means to live and from showing political leadership to grapple creatively with poverty.
We need sustainable livelihoods rather than insecure, poorly paid work and social welfare benefits that offer dignity and sufficiency rather than penalties and indebtedness.
Growing hunger is too big for charitable food banks to solve.
Professor of food and social policy,
Department of Sociology
University of Warwick