Responding to household crises and low incomes within a turbulent economic context, food banks are a lifeline for families who would otherwise go hungry. As noted in my previous piece, the rise of food banks represents an attack on state welfare to secure a minimum level of wellbeing and participation in society. Unfortunately the continuing debate demonstrates that this problem is much deeper than previously expected.
Food is a fundamental requirement of physiological survival, a fundamental human need. Unlike some needs (such as education and health) it is commonly accepted that the market is the most suitable mechanism for delivering this need. Yet a ‘Which?’ survey in 2013 demonstrated that food prices have increased above the rate of inflation at 12.6 per cent and reported that 45 per cent of consumers were spending more on food. This is within a context where the real median household income in 2013-14 has, as a result of a decline in real earnings, reached a point six per cent below pre-crisis income peak. Essentially food prices are increasing while household incomes fall.
Where markets fail either the state or third sector must step into the breach. Arguably food banks are the ‘big society’ in action and one could easily believe that the coalition government would point to this initiative as an example of resilient, active communities. Instead, the Conservatives, as evidenced by the comments of Michael Gove and more recently on Panorama by Edwina Currie, argue that food banks reflect failings in individual responsibility – that provision has increased demand and consequently fosters dependency. Such arguments however found no support in the review of evidence published in February 2014.
There is an oddity in the argument. Those turning to food banks are families who are constrained by the economic context they live in. Trapped in a churning movement between low and no pay they have insufficient income or assets to sustain them during turbulent times. The state and market will not and cannot meet their needs, so the only choice is hunger or food banks. Ironically Cameron has suggested we call the voluntary sector the ‘first sector’; but when it steps up to provide for the hungry it is criticised for doing so by his government. Third sector provision is the last non-choice people have, there are no other options so it can never be a real choice: the alternative is to starve.
We know of course that the very basic of human need includes food but in the United Kingdom we have reached a point where hunger has become highly visible and government is quick to shift the blame onto individuals. We have a government therefore that is failing to meet the very basic needs of citizens; the ethical practices of such a government are highly suspect. The real danger however is institutionalisation. Food banks represent a failing welfare system if they become an established and standardised response to hunger then it is clear the UK has a welfare system which no longer ensures and protects the needs of its citizens.
Lee Gregory is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Bristol, School for Policy Studies. He writes here in a personal capacity
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