Institutionalising deservingness? Food banks and welfare reform

Institutionalising deservingness? Food banks and welfare reform

Alan Connolly

Food bank usage has increased dramatically in the UK over the past decade. The Trussell Trust, the main food bank provider in the UK, has grown from two to 428 food banks since 2004 and is staffed by 40,000 volunteers. In terms of accessing the service, one needs a referral (a food voucher) which can be obtained from care professionals, e.g. GPs, social workers and Citizens Advice Bureau staff. There is a strong sense from Trussell that eligibility for food bank assistance is dependent on the person concerned experiencing an acute short term crisis. As this is the official stance of the Trussell Trust it has contributed to a narrative of, and unhelpful assumptions about, deserving and undeserving food bank users, both in terms of the attitudes of staff and of wider sentiments in the public sphere.

It must also, however, be recognised that the Trussell Trust is motivated by a desire to help people dealing with poverty and that they offer assistance which is often not available anywhere else in a given locale. Furthermore, both as an organisation and in terms of the individual viewpoints of staff, they frequently make it clear that they are aware of, and deeply concerned about, the negative effects of welfare reform on people accessing their services.

My first-hand interviews with staff and those using food banks at Trussell Trust food banks as part of a PhD project examining food bank use in Liverpool, indicate that, while exceptions are sometimes made, this rule is broadly applied for referrals. There are also parallels between arguments for this short term crisis policy and justifications for welfare reform. The National Audit Office has now reported that Universal Credit, the centrepiece of the Conservatives’ welfare policy, will be more expensive to run than the previous system and is no more effective at boosting employment. In this context it is important to examine the reasons which have been mobilised by the current and previous governments to justify elements of welfare reform such as conditionality and sanctions.

While Trussell does not offer a definition of ‘crisis’ in terms of eligibility, it does provide examples. Support is provided to people in crisis for reasons ranging ‘from redundancy to receiving an unexpected bill on a low income.’ The approach seems on the face of it to be a sensible one – somebody presents with an acute crisis, the food bank deals with that through the food parcel and then deals with the longer term problems or contributing factors through advice, assistance and signposting.

However, elsewhere on their website, Trussell links food bank use to the total numbers living below the poverty line: ‘Thirteen million people live below the poverty line in the UK, with individuals going hungry every day for a range of reasons, from benefit delays to receiving an unexpected bill on a low income.’ The wording here risks conflating those accessing food banks and those affected by food insecurity. This is significant as not all of the 13m people living below the poverty line are eligible to receive assistance from a Trussell Trust food bank, as might be implied by invoking these figures.

A recent UN survey indicates that 8.4m people in the UK are food insecure, and, given that an estimated 1.3m people use food banks annually (Trussell gave out 1,332,952 food parcels in the past year, on average people use the service twice per year and the charity accounts for approximately half of food bank use nationwide) it is clear that those using food banks are only a small proportion of those who are actually food insecure.

A recent study has noted that there is much evidence that short-term crises are put forward as the reasons people most commonly receive food assistance. The fact that people use food banks in times of short-term crises, however, is possibly due to Trussell’s criteria as outlined above rather than necessarily reflecting the situations of people in need of assistance.

During interviews with food bank staff and people using food banks three reasons were often provided for the food bank having to limit assistance in this way. These were responsibility to the donors, the conservation of scarce resources and the avoidance of dependence. These reasons are also regularly employed by successive Conservative governments to justify both welfare cuts and welfare conditionality. This is ironic given that several studies have shown that welfare reform has contributed to rising numbers of people needing to use food banks.

In terms of responsibility to the donors, Olivia (all names have been changed), a Trussell Trust food bank manager, had this to say: ‘What we’re trying to do is encourage people to take control of their own financial situation, so we don’t give food out to people who just turn up and ask for it, because that’s not how we work, you know, we can’t, we have to be responsible for the food that’s donated in the main to us by the public, and those people are giving us food because they want to help people who are in dire need, you know.’

There is a sense from Olivia here that the perceived wishes of the people who donate the food must be adhered to. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that there is an assumption that one can be sure what the wishes of the donating public are, when in reality there is only anecdotal evidence to indicate this.

The same tenuous argument was used by then Chancellor George Osborne in 2013 in a landmark speech defending welfare cuts and conditionality, when he stated that: ‘The benefit system is broken; it penalises those who try to do the right thing; and the British people badly want it fixed.’ Later he makes it clear that by ‘British people’ he really means in-work taxpayers who have done ‘the right thing’ as opposed to those not in work who have not: ‘We’re trying to make the system fair on people like you, who get up, go to work, and expect your taxes to be spent wisely.’

There is also a strong perception on the part of food bank staff that scarce resources must be conserved in a particular way. Olivia told me: ‘So we can’t sustain you know feeding people as if you know we’re a supermarket.  But the vast, vast majority of people only ever come once or twice.’ The supermarket represents ‘normal’ ways of getting food and what Olivia is saying could be seen to indicate that this is not a normal way to do things and that it should only be for people in a particular kind of crisis.

This at best acknowledges the stigma attached to food bank use and at worst reinforces the stigma when regular reliance on the food bank is involved. It also implies that to come regularly to the food bank would be ‘wrong’ in some sense, that the person is overusing a scarce resource and that it is a good thing that most people visit the food bank only ‘once or twice.’ Osborne similarly justifies drastic cuts to welfare spending in his 2013 speech by appealing to economic necessity, arguing that ‘defending every line item of welfare spending isn’t credible in the current economic environment.’

The third reason often given for food banks limiting their assistance to a certain type of crisis is around avoiding dependence. I asked Peter, a lead volunteer, why he felt that it was a bad idea for food banks to give food to people on a regular or on-going basis. He replied that he thought that people would ‘become dependent on it, they will spend money on other stuff instead of on food… In other words we’re not trying to create a dependency, we’re trying to help people where there is an emergency.’

Emily, another Trussell food bank manager, had a similar take on the situation, alluding to all three reasons: ‘If you’re just giving out food, who’s sorting their problems out and who’s helping them? And if they’re dependent on it, you can’t keep that up and it’s just not good for anybody.’ Again if we return to Osborne’s speech on welfare and tax reform we see that he employs a similar argument, telling us that ‘defending benefits that trap people in poverty and penalise work is defending the indefensible.’

The concerns expressed by food bank staff here that unconditional support would be counterproductive are reflected in current government policy on welfare conditionality and sanctions in particular. A 2017 DWP report states that:  ‘Having strong and clear sanctions are critical to incentivise benefit recipients to meet their responsibilities.’ This narrative lends itself to unhelpful assumptions about deserving and undeserving people living with poverty and there is a risk that the policies of both the Trussell Trust and the government may result in a blaming of those who use food banks and those experiencing poverty more generally.

The risks involved in Trussell’s approach to the identification and assessment of crises are linked to the referral or voucher system mentioned above. The authors of a recent academic paper which examines the often contradictory nature of food banking contend that, by opting to delegate these decisions to the referral agents, the charity has less control over how those using the service are defined and quantified and risk access to their service being influenced by ‘wider political ideologies and practices that subjectify deservingness and undeservingness’. Trussell, while attempting to deal with the symptoms of poverty, may in fact be institutionalising the deserving/ undeserving distinction as well as inadvertently supplementing a welfare system beset with cuts, punitive practices and inefficiencies.


Alan Connolly is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. His research interests are in the areas of social policy, political philosophy and economic inequality. This article is based on ESRC funded PhD research which examines the rise in demand for food bank services in England over the past decade, utilising the Liverpool City Region, the city with the highest use of food banks in England, as a case study. Key questions explored are: What are food banks? Why have food banks proliferated? What do they reveal about poverty in contemporary England? The main argument is that an individualistic understanding of poverty characterises the current government’s food poverty policy and this can also be seen in historical policies and political rhetoric. It is further argued that this policy stance is linked to the growth in food bank numbers and demand for services.

Photo by author.