Foodbanks: easier to use as weapons than do something about the causes

One topic that politicians are fond of abusing is that of foodbanks.

Some topics seems too explosive for them to take control of, such as the debate on drugs or how the NHS should cope with the fact that it can’t cope with our expectations of it.

Anyone daring to question the current drugs policy — putting the control of a substance with which many of our children have contact in the hands of psychopaths — would be pilloried by the tabloids. Anyone suggesting that the non-state sector might have something to contribute to the NHS as it faces an aging population is ridiculed by opponents for wanting to privatise it.

Similarly foodbanks: no politician can talk seriously about them, because that might mean them admitting that their policies leave people starving. Politics is failing the very poor.

For a start, it’s wrong to say foodbanks are a phenomena of the Tory Party’s rule and a result of changes in the benefits system.

In Congleton, New Life Church’s foodbank has been going for ages but wasn’t called a foodbank — it was called Storehouse and just helped out people in need. There are lots — no-one knows the number — of other unofficial stores, which all existed before foodbanks became news.

The reason foodbanks are in the news is down to The Trussell Trust, the largest operator of foodbanks and the only organisation for which figures exist.

It was founded in 1997 (PM: Tony Blair, Labour in power) and its own website reports that it was in 2000 (still Tony Blair) that it started foodbanks in this country.

It originally started to help people in Bulgaria, using money left by Betty Trussell, mother of co-founder Carol Henderson.

The charity’s website says: “While fundraising for Bulgaria in Salisbury in 2000, Paddy (Carol’s husband) received a call from a desperate mother in Salisbury saying ‘my children are going to bed hungry tonight — what are you going to do about it?’.

“Paddy investigated local indices of deprivation and ‘hidden hunger’ in the UK. The shocking results showed that significant numbers of local people faced short term hunger as a result of a sudden crisis.”

Paddy started Salisbury foodbank in his garden shed and garage, providing three days of emergency food to local people in crisis.

In 2004 the UK foodbank network was launched teaching churches and communities nationwide how to start their own foodbank. That’s 2004 — still Tony Blair, still Labour.

But the rapid ascent of foodbanks is a bit of a meaningless number.

It’s like iPhones: as soon as they were introduced they sold by the bucketload. There was a previously unfilled market out there.

Similar, politicians’ claims about the rise of foodbanks are based on Trussell Trust statistics and reflect the fact that it didn’t exist and then it did, rather than a recent collapse in society.

It’s true that foodbanks grew by 10% under Labour, but that was the early days of the trust. Foodbanks have increased by over 22% under the Tories, but that’s because they are filling a pre-existing demand and the trust is growing.

We should really be asking why politicians of all hues have clearly done nothing about people going hungry for decades.

In effect, the issue has only come to light because a random woman died, her son set up a charity to help in Bulgaria and then randomly met a hungry woman in Salisbury.

We discussed this on Facebook and a common reaction is that foodbanks are frequented by scroungers who could buy food if they wanted but prefer to blow their money on cigarettes and big tellies.

We don’t really buy this: we don’t think people voluntarily beg for food. It’s probably demeaning and embarrassing for many, and of course you can’t just rock up and ask for six tins of beans and fresh loaf. People need to be referred to foodbanks.

According to the Trussell Trust’s 2013/14 report, nearly 1m used its foodbanks though this total does not track repeat visits, so if you went back twice you’d be counted twice.

The trust itself found that two thirds of people only visited once over a six-month period, which gives it 700,000 unique visitors.

There are probably no figures for fraudulent foodbank claims, so here’s a bit of guesswork.

Benefit tax fraud in 2012 was £1.6bn, out of a total benefit budget of £159bn. If you assume that all those people who fraudulently claim benefits also con foodbanks, that means just 1% of users are scroungers — 7,000 people out of 700,000. But that won’t happen and it’s easier to forget to say you’ve got a job than it is to lie face to face to obtain a small supply of food. Spongers are a tiny percentage.

The point is that foodbanks are clearly needed in this country by people who can’t afford to buy food and this seems to be a long-standing problem that politicians have failed to address.

It is not the result of any one party’s policies and certainly not the result of the Tory benefit cuts.

To repeat: we should really be asking why politicians of all hues have clearly done nothing about people going hungry for decades, and why it’s taken members of the public to bring the issues to light.

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