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Banking for Food

Food banks are one of the most obvious examples of the extent of poverty, and more and more people have been using them. In the six months to September last year, the Trussell Trust, which operates a large number of food banks throughout Britain, handed out three-day food parcels to over half a million people, an increase over the same period in 2015. There are also more food banks in operation now than ever before. Many of the hungry are in fuel poverty too, and some food banks have even begun to give out tampons, as some women were using newspapers or handkerchiefs when they could not afford proper sanitary products.

Clearly, poverty is the reason why people resort to food banks to feed themselves and their families, but specifically two out of five who went to Trussell Trust operations cited delays in receiving benefits or changes to benefits as causing them to go there. A DWP spokesperson stated, ‘Reasons for food bank use are complex so it’s misleading to link them to any one issue’ (Telegraph online, 08/11/16). Individual cases vary, of course, but talk of ‘complex reasons’ just serves to muddy the water. To put it plainly, it is poverty and the inability to make ends meet that drive people to food banks.

In 2014 the Mail on Sunday ran a typically nasty story claiming that people could get vouchers for food banks without ID or checks and just by telling sob stories. Moreover, many of those who used the food banks were asylum seekers! This exemplifies the capitalist propaganda machine: focussing on a tiny number who supposedly ‘abuse’ the system rather than the widespread poverty that makes the system necessary, just as allegedly-dishonest welfare recipients are publicised in order to undermine the whole system and so humiliate, discourage and harass those who have genuine claims.

In 2015, 391 people in the UK died from malnutrition or hunger-related causes, and there were 746 admissions to hospital on grounds of malnutrition. There seem to be no reliable figures for the extent of hunger in Britain, but the increase in children starting school under weight and the rise in use of food banks suggest that the situation is bad and getting worse. One volunteer reported on some painfully thin people who attended one food bank: ‘There were people who had not eaten that day or the day before, or who had walked for two hours to get there, because paying for a return bus journey was out of the question’ (Guardian online, 29 January).

What is usually claimed to be the world’s first food bank was started in Arizona in 1967. In the US 42 million people still face hunger now, including nearly thirteen million children and five million seniors (feedingamerica.org). That is roughly one person in eight, which shows graphically why food banks are still badly needed.

One in nine of the world’s population – that’s 800 million people – do not have enough to eat, and nearly three million children die each year from hunger-related causes. According to the Global Foodbanking Network (foodbanking.org), households and nations suffer from food insecurity, ‘conditions where people do not have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food’. The GFN is currently aiming to raise $1m ‘to provide nutritious meals to eight million people facing hunger by the end of 2018’; but this is barely a drop in the ocean of what is needed.

Food banks are a classic case of dealing with the symptoms, not the cause. But the need for food banks and the increasing demands on them show very clearly that capitalism cannot provide a decent and secure life for everybody, despite the potential to produce more than enough of food and other goods. 

PB