To supprt our research on food poverty in Kensington and Chelsea we were fortunate to be able to employ Jamie Hamilton on a four month paid internship, funded through a grant from Dalgarno City Living Local Life.
Read about what Jamie learnt about food banks in his time here, and add your comments below.
Four months ago, I thought that I understood food poverty. I had read the newspaper articles decrying the rise of ‘Foodbank Britain’. I had listened to the radio phone-ins made by impassioned food bank users and volunteers. These discussions had even motivated me to volunteer at a local foodbank myself. Tackling food poverty, I had come to believe, was the job of foodbanks.
It was only when I began my internship with Kensington and Chelsea Social Council that I realised how superficial my ‘understanding’ was. I had failed to appreciate how food aid provision relies on a complex network of actors and organisations. I had focused so much on the treatment of food poverty that I had overlooked the potential for its prevention. I had believed that food poverty was an issue for the voluntary sector, not realising that every sector has an important role to play. Put simply, my faith in foodbanks had made me naïve.
Since I joined KCSC, my support and admiration for the invaluable efforts of foodbanks has not changed. What has, however, is that I now realise that we need to look beyond foodbanks if we hope to understand food poverty.
To do this, I believe that we need to remember five things when we think about the issue. Cooking up Ideas: Addressing the Challenges of Food Poverty in Kensington and Chelsea, KCSC’s report on food poverty in the Royal Borough, discusses these ideas in greater detail.
I might have already laboured this point, but it is worth reinforcing. At times, we seem to overlook the inner details of food poverty, feeling safe in the knowledge that foodbanks are dealing with the problem. We do not ask ourselves why people find themselves using foodbanks. We do not ask ourselves who is using a foodbank. We do not ask ourselves how foodbanks are making a difference to people’s lives.
Often, our thoughts about food poverty only scratch the surface. To dig deeper, we need to start asking bigger questions.
Public awareness regarding food aid provision largely focuses on the work done by large, formal organisations. Again, the value of the work done by networks such as the Trussell Trust and FareShare cannot be underestimated.
However, we must remember the scale of the problem. To quote Adrian Curtis, Network Director at the Trussell Trust; ‘It is difficult to be sure of the full extent of [food poverty] as Trussell Trust figures don't include people who are helped by other food charities, or those who feel too ashamed to seek help’.
Locally, voluntary organisations and civic groups are working tirelessly to help those experiencing need within their communities. The efforts of such groups are often vital for individuals who cannot pursue formal routes of food aid due to- among other factors- refugee status, disability, and homelessness. Indeed, KCSC’s research found that many individuals only felt ‘ashamed to seek help’ from what they felt to be a ‘stigmatising’ formal referral system. These individuals were in fact grateful to have access to community-based, informal food aid.
The message is clear. Without the efforts of community groups throughout the UK, those who have slipped through the cracks of the formal food aid system would face hunger, exclusion and crisis.
To ensure that people do not suffer in silence, we need to support local voluntary organisations. The first step in doing this is to recognise their leading role in the fight against food poverty.
This relates back to the first point. By focusing so heavily on the reactive efforts of food banks, we often forget what they are reacting to.
Between half and two-thirds of food bank users find themselves needing help because of income difficulties arising from the benefits system. Sanctions, cuts, administrative errors and welfare reforms are all leading drivers of food bank use. Aside from the benefits system, unemployment and low pay are the two dominant causes of food bank use.
To stop people needing emergency aid, we must shift our focus from the food banks themselves and towards the system creating a need for their services. Food poverty is evidence of an institutional problem, and effective policy can correct this.
Pressure is needed to influence policy-makers, and we need to build on the public’s understanding of food poverty to generate this.
A large part of the problem is that decision-makers fail to recognise the extent of food poverty. Currently the government does not monitor food bank use, and claims that the complexity of the issue means that it cannot do so. Statistics are vital if we hope to understand and tackle food poverty at a national level. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that some decision-makers refuse to accept that food poverty, by nature, is political. Lord Freud’s assertion that food bank use is increasing because people are taking advantage of free food - not because of flaws in the welfare system - is the clearest evidence of this.
The politics of food poverty are not only national. We must make use of our councillors and MPs. We need to stress that a localised approach to food poverty will benefit our communities far more than it will cost them. A bottom-up approach could be the key to creating real change.
Political discussion is needed, but for this to be achieved, we need to lobby decision-makers.
I will end my thoughts with a positive. Having discussed food poverty with countless voluntary sector representatives over the past few months, I have noticed this phrase appear time and time again; ‘poverty is not inevitable’.
This is undoubtedly the most important lesson I have learnt from my time at KCSC.
If we remember the previous four points, and develop a deeper-rooted, holistic approach to the problem, we can end to food poverty in the UK.