ON THE FRONTLINE: Why we need to listen to the people experiencing foodbank Britain

ON THE FRONTLINE: Why we need to listen to the people experiencing foodbank Britain

Kayleigh Garthwaite

My new book, Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain, chronicles my time as a volunteer and a researcher inside a Trussell Trust foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees. One of the main reasons I decided to write the book was to give an account of foodbank use from the inside, telling people’s own stories in their own words. After spending almost two years, and hundreds of hours inside the foodbank as a volunteer and researcher, I wanted to make the voices of people using the foodbank heard above the negative yet popular rhetoric which blames and shames people in poverty for their own situation.

Since 2010, Britain has been experiencing a foodbank explosion. Although provision of informal food aid in the UK has existed for many years, it has not been widely publicised, documented or understood. There were no UK-focused newspaper articles about foodbank use before 2008 and few until 2012 when the number increased dramatically. But the ongoing rise of the Trussell Trust foodbank network has brought the issue of hunger and its causes right into the public consciousness. In 2004 the Trust ran only two foodbanks. Today, there are over 400. In 2009/10, their foodbanks helped 41,000 people. In 2014/15, for the first time, over one million people received emergency food, an eight fold increase from 2011/12. The latest figures show that again, over one million people are using foodbanks.

During this period of foodbank growth, the Coalition government – in a continuation of Labour policies –introduced several welfare reforms under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which include caps on levels of entitlement, the ‘under occupancy charge’ (or ‘bedroom tax’ as it is more commonly known) being introduced to Housing Benefit, longer waiting periods between unemployment and benefit eligibility, and the establishment of local welfare assistance to replace the discretionary social fund. This is set against a backdrop of harsh sanctioning, benefit changes, and rising food and fuel costs, which have led to more and more people being pushed over the edge into poverty.

Academics from the University of Oxford predicting that 2 million people will need to use foodbanks by 2017 as further welfare cuts of £12 billion were outlined in Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s July 2015 budget. Added to this is the uncertainty of the recent EU Referendum result and what it will mean for employment, food and fuel prices, and the future of the economy. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has warned that low-income households are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of Brexit. Under a worst-case scenario, some low-income households could lose as much as £5,542 a year in tax credits and benefit payments in 2020, which would surely result in more people heading towards the foodbank.

But where are the voices of the people who are actually using foodbanks? Headline statistics of one million people using foodbanks can only tell us so much. I often get asked who the typical foodbank user was. Is it single men? Young women with children? Do people who work use a foodbank? But in reality, there is no such thing as a typical foodbank user. Some weeks there would be more young single men who had been sanctioned. Other weeks, especially in the school holidays, I would see more families with children, mothers who skip meals in a fraught attempt to make their money cover the additional expense of the six week’ holidays. There were the recently widowed older women who were finding it impossible to navigate their daily lives on just one income; the middle aged men on the sick because of an accident at work, who weren’t getting proper sick pay as their employer didn’t pay it out. I spoke to people aged between 16 and 63 – teenagers, middle aged, pensioners, young couples,– who all told me their stories while they waited for their food parcel. I found that there were three groups of reasons why people used the foodbank:

  • The result of an immediate income crisis, often due to problems with benefits, such as sanctions and delays
  • Longer term income insecurity, including fuel poverty, low paid work, debt, and homelessness
  • ‘Tipping points’ such as ill health, bereavement, and relationship breakdown

However, these categories were not static and separate. The referral agency is required to tick only one box on the red voucher, but in the majority of cases people using the foodbank could have ticked multiple boxes – if someone was dealing with a benefit delay, low income and debt were often associated with that. Ill health was often present, but you would rarely find it recorded on the voucher as a contributing factor. Everyone I met was different. What linked them together, though, was a sense of shame, frustration, anger, and a refusal to give in, meaning that using a foodbank was very much a last resort.

It’s not easy for anyone to walk through the doors of a foodbank – for the volunteers, for the support workers, for me, but most of all, for the people asking for emergency food. The foodbank was often described as something only to be drawn on when people “had no choice”. Shame and embarrassment meant people waited until they had exhausted all other avenues of support available to them, such as relying on family and friends to loan them money, have meals with, or pay off their debts, before they asked for a red voucher. I met people who thought their benefits would stop if they came to a foodbank. People who were afraid their kids would get taken away by Social Services because they didn’t have enough money to feed them. People who would not tell close family and friends just how much they were struggling because they felt too ashamed. When people did overcome their fears, the actual experience of using the foodbank was often not so negative. The tables set up cafe style, with pretty orange, pink, and white checked tablecloths, plates of biscuits and little crystal bowls of sugar attempted to create a non-judgemental and relaxed atmosphere. Homemade cakes or slices of toast would be offered to people while they chatted to the volunteers and waited for their food parcel.

The stories of the people we meet in ‘Hunger Pains’ offer a serious challenge to contemporary thinking about the factors driving increasing foodbank use, and help to dispel the damaging myths that people who use a foodbank are simply seeking emergency food as a result of their own flawed lifestyle choices. All of the evidence in the book shows why we need a new conversation about foodbanks that looks at the actual, lived experiences of people who are using them. Now, more than ever in the wake of the EU referendum result, it is vital that we talk about the complexities and barriers people face, whether they only use the foodbank once or are frequent visitors, over time. We need to talk about the impossibility of managing when waiting three weeks for a delayed benefit payment, or when a benefits sanction means six months with zero income. We need to think about poorly paid, insecure work which doesn’t protect people from poverty. We need to realise just how damaging the stigma, shame and negativity cruelly attached to people experiencing the sharp end of austerity can be, and how this can worsen already poor health. People going hungry and getting by on low incomes are habitually made to feel guilty and experience shame – but where is the collective shame that one of the world’s richest economies relies on emergency food aid to feed a growing number of its population?


Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Research Associate in the Centre for Health and Inequalities Research, Durham University. Kayleigh explores issues of health inequalities, welfare reform, and austerity through ethnographic research. She can be followed on Twitter @KA_Garthwaite