Let's be honest about the problem with food banks

Could food banks be contributing to the problem of poverty?

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It's no secret that food banks are on the rise, with more than 400 outlets across the UK. In the last 12 months, the Trussell Trust says its banks fed 913,138 people. Of those, 330,205 were children.

Feeding hungry children can only be good, but I am concerned that food banks are causing problems. I am worried that they are enabling us to accept food poverty when we need to be furiously demanding government action.

As a journalist I have visited my local food bank and spent the day interviewing its clients. There was a young pregnant woman (pictured left) who had no money for food, despite having medication she could only take after a meal.

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There was a straight-backed, impeccably dressed older woman whose disabled husband had lost his benefits, meaning there was no money to fill their cupboards. There was the heart-breaking sight of a little girl wild with excitement because her family's food parcel included Coco Pops - I think of her often when I watch my own children unthinkingly eat a second helping of cereal.

Those people were hungry and desperate, and thank goodness there was somewhere for them to get help.

Can food banks cause problems for poor?

Like many people in the UK, I often buy groceries to place into the supermarket's food bank trolley. These trolleys are now ubiquitous; I see them in every supermarket I visit – just next to the box for donations of cat food.

But I support food banks with a vague sense of unease. Could these admirable organisations be causing problems? Are they enabling the abuse of the poor?

According to the Trussell Trust, an excellent charity that is the largest provider of food banks in the UK, 83% of food banks have said that benefits sanctions are one of the reasons more people are coming to their doors.

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Sanctions are where a claimant is stripped of their benefits for a period of time; for Job Seekers' Allowance there is a minimum sanction period of four weeks.

One month without your main source of income, can you imagine going home to your children with that news? One in four Citizens Advice clients who has sought help over sanctions has dependent children.

More people seeking help

Maybe you think they should 'get a job', but in some areas there are no suitable jobs, certainly not for the long-term unemployed. Four weeks without JSA leaves people forced to beg or resort to crime. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly by any Job Centre official.

And yet, Citizens Advice reports a 60% increase in the number of people seeking help because their benefits have been sanctioned.

I shudder as I wonder if the officials removing people's money are doing so more readily because they believe the claimant can simply go to a food bank for support. Could the existence of food banks be reassuring officials that it's okay to leave someone without any income for weeks at a time?

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The second-biggest reason given for using food banks is low income. More than five million workers in the UK are paid less than the living wage, according to the accountancy giant KPMG.

They may be receiving minimum wage, but they don't earn enough to afford a 'basic but acceptable' standard of living.

Subsidising their wages

This is a travesty and yet, by supporting these workers with food banks and even tax credits, we are effectively subsidising their wages.

We should be demanding fairer pay for these workers instead of accepting a situation where they have to rely on charity to feed their families. They deserve the right to feed their families themselves, they work hard enough.

I do want to be clear about one thing though; food banks are not causing reliance and worklessness among their users.

They issue three days'-worth of food per person and most allow only one visit every few months; all of them require a referral. No one gets to simply queue up for free food every day. Food banks are not encouraging helplessness and apathy.

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But could they be causing apathy among our civil servants, our politicians and even ourselves? Are we pacifying our consciences by dropping a can of soup in the donation trolley instead of demanding real change?

Don't make food banks the new reality

I have nothing but admiration for food banks and their supporters; there are hungry people out there and they have to have food.

Just don't donate and then assume that your work is done; food banks must be a chapter of history and not the new reality. We must campaign to make Britain better so that they are no longer needed, we must force politicians to support the poorest and most vulnerable instead of buying into their anti-benefits rhetoric. In the 21st century, the existence of food banks shames us all.

What do you think? Why are food banks suddenly so busy? What is the solution? Have your say using the comments below.

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