Volunteers weigh food drive donations. Photo: Wikipedia Volunteers weigh food drive donations. Photo: Wikipedia

Austerity policies targeting the benefits system have created enormous suffering, as a study of the rise of foodbanks shows, finds Ellen Graubart


Kayleigh Garthwaite, Hunger Pains: Life inside Foodbank Britain, foreword by Jack Monroe, afterword by Linda Tirado (Policy Press 2016), xi, 195pp.

Kayleigh Garthwaite worked as a researcher and Trussell Trust volunteer for two years in gathering information for writing Hunger Pains, through which she gained a unique perspective as an insider to foodbanks, how they operate, the people visiting them, and the stresses suffered by them (and by the volunteers trying to help them to cope and survive). There has been a dramatic increase in the use of foodbanks in the UK since the draconian and ideologically driven austerity measures were put in place, first by the coalition government in 2010 and continued by David Cameron’s conservative government. Garthwaite’s study clearly demonstrates the direct link between the increase in the use of foodbanks and government austerity policies.

She explains the procedure that a person in need has to go through in order to secure a voucher, which is necessary for a person to qualify for donations; describes how the food is donated; how guidance is given in finding further help; explains why people use foodbanks; and what they accomplish. She also discusses the politics of foodbanks, and how the attempts of ministers to dismiss their rising use as a lifestyle choice clash with the real-life experiences of people using them. The result of ministers’ words in this case is to cause foodbank users even greater stress and to alienate them further from the rest of society.

Finally, she questions whether or not foodbanks will remain a permanent feature in the UK. She warns us that the long-term consequences of increasingly relying on charity to address poverty cannot be ignored, that it is only a temporary solution; that there must be structural changes to address the problem of poverty in Britain.

Garthwaite began working on her research project in Stockton-on-Tees in 2013 with the aim of revealing the reality of life in an area in which exist stark health inequalities, where jobs are minimum wage, zero hours and difficult to find, in an area where poverty and affluence exist side-by-side. She divided her time between the town centre (one of the most deprived areas), volunteering at her local foodbank, meeting people at the Citizens Advice Centre, and visiting shops, cafes and community centres – and also in one of the least deprived areas in the borough, Hartburn (p.1).

Teeside is an area which thrived throughout the era of industrial expansion, with growth led by the iron, steel, engineering and shipping industries. However, since the 1970s increasing competition from other countries has had a devastating effect on the local economy. During the 1980s Teeside had the highest rates of unemployment in Britain. Currently, most employment is in the service sector, with the borough suffering above average levels of long-term unemployment. Around one in five children in Stockton-on-Tess is at present living in poverty.

Some facts:

  • According to the Office for National Statistics thirteen million people are currently living below the poverty line in the UK, just over half of which live in working families, and as many live in privately rented housing as in social housing (p.5).
  • There are more people aged 16-24 living in poverty than there are in those over the age of 65: 19,300,000 people (p.5).
  • Almost a third of the population fell below the poverty line at some point between 2010 and 2013 (p.5).
  • People on low incomes need to spend up to 35% of their income on food (rising inflation of food, fuel and living costs are much higher in UK than in other parts of Europe); the wealthier pay only 9% on food (p.5).

Foodbank explosion

The rise in poverty in Britain since austerity measures were put in place by the Coalition government has resulted in a foodbank explosion. In 2004 the Trussell Trust ran three foodbanks. Between 2009 and 2010, the Trust helped 41,000 people. By 2014/15, during which the coalition government was in power, over one million people received emergency food donations from the Trussell Trust’s network of, by now, four hundred foodbanks (p.2).

This shocking indictment of government policies has coincided with an increase in those seeking help following benefit sanctions or delays. Hunger is now considered a ‘fact of life’ in poorer communities, with increasing numbers of people going without food. The changes in the nature of the jobs market, with the rise of precarity and zero-hours contracts, has led to an epidemic of insecurity and chronic stress. The government’s austerity measures have vastly widened the gap between the rich and the poor, with destructive consequences for the health of the poor, including rising suicide rates and worsened mental health. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the link between foodbank use and welfare reforms put in place since 2010:

‘Research by Guardian journalists Patrick Butler and Shiv Malik revealed that the government has significantly understated the impact of its benefit sanctions regime, with one in six of all jobseekers having their payments stopped each year, contradicting claims that only a small minority of job seekers have been affected. Their research was published a month after welfare minister Lord Freud refused to give Parliament annualised sanction rates, saying that it was too expensive for the DWP to provide them’ (pp.9-10).

The government refuses to admit the connection between cuts in social security and use of foodbanks, although frontline experience of foodbank use and academic research confirms the connection (p.4).

The Trussell Trust foodbank network has brought the issue of hunger and its causes into public consciousness. Before 2008 there were no UK focused newspaper articles on the subject and there were few till 2012; the number of articles published has increased dramatically since then (p.3). It is during this period that the coalition government introduced the welfare reforms (which were a continuation of previous Labour policies). These reforms included:

  • a cap on levels of entitlement to benefits
  • the introduction of the bedroom tax (‘underoccupancy charge’),
  • longer waiting periods between becoming unemployed and benefit eligibility
  • the establishment of local welfare assistance to replace discretionary social fund (p.3).

The combination of harsh sanctioning, benefit changes and rising food and fuel costs pushed more people into poverty.  Here is the Joseph Rowntree charity’s response to the question ‘What is poverty’:

‘The reasons why people use food banks are many and complex, and range from immediate crises caused by benefits sanctions or delays to longer term insecurity, including debt, fuel poverty, low paid work and life-changing events such as bereavement or job loss. People use foodbanks as a very last resort, not out of choice. For example, so they “could spend their last few pounds on fuel to avoid bringing their new-born baby into a house without any heating or electricity”, or they were waiting for their ESA appeal to be heard, being too afraid of what would happen if they tried to claim other benefits’ (p.4).

Stigma and shame

The perception of foodbank misuse in the media and from politicians (and by foodbank volunteers) has persuaded the general public into believing that people are turning to foodbanks out of choice. Garfield describes the shame and stigma that attaches to people forced to use foodbanks and how their situation is made worse by the rise of ‘poverty porn’, where they are relegated to the margins of society by shows such as Benefit Street, or Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole – shows that seem to ‘take pleasure in depicting people as lazy, criminal, violent, undisciplined and shameless; playing into the media and government rhetoric around people living on a low income’ (p.137).

Having spent hundreds of hours in observation and interviewing people using foodbanks, Garthwaite provides a powerful description of their use from the inside, with people telling their own stories, in their own words. She thereby poses a serious challenge to contemporary thinking about the factors that drive people to use foodbanks, dispelling the myths that people are seeking emergency help because of their chaotic life styles and the irresponsible life choices they make.

In her conclusion Garthwaite poses two questions. Firstly, ‘is foodbank Britain here to stay?’ Secondly, ‘what is the future for foodbank Britain?’ American sociologist Janet Poppendiek’s description of foodbanks in America resonates clearly with the problems raised by emergency food provision in the UK. Poppendiek sees foodbanks as a ‘moral safety valve’ which:

‘reduce[s] the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it. It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to injustice, rather than encouraging systemic change’ (p.151).

In addressing foodbank use Garthwaite puts forward three steps that must be taken:

  • The stigma attached to people relying on food donations must be removed.
  • Their voices must be heard and listened to.
  • The government needs to tackle the driving factors that lead to the use of foodbanks.

She chooses five points that she thinks most important from the fourteen-point plan outlined by the Fabian Commission (p.156).

  1. A new cross-department minister with responsibility for eliminating household insecurity in the UK.
  2. Action to reduce household food insecurity caused by social-security benefit sanctions, delays and errors.
  3. An inquiry to identify effective ways of removing poverty premiums for key living costs including food, utilities, housing, household appliances and transport.
  4. Local authorities to establish food access plans that will address any physical barriers to affordable, nutritious food in their area.
  5. The government to proceed with raising the NLW (National Living Wage) to 60% of median wages.

These specific policy prescriptions point out what needs to be done to create a fair society, but there is no evidence that any government would implement such measures without pressure from below: there needs to be an engine in the form of massive social solidarity to achieve this, and to break through the ubiquitous smoke screen of a negative media. The People’s Assembly is just such an engine, and it is growing.

The way forward starts with listening

The final message that Garthwaite brings is that – yes- there is an urgent need for a new conversation about the everyday realities of people forced to use foodbanks, the complexities of the lives they lead and the impossibility of managing when waiting three weeks for a delayed payment, or six months without any payments at all if sanctioned. Most importantly, nonetheless, if we are to change the situation for people using foodbanks we must listen to their voices and include them in the conversation, so that we can understand who uses them, why, and what it feels like. Maybe then we can start to do something about it. The question remains – just how much inequality are we willing to tolerate as a society?

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.