Food banks should never be part of our ‘new normal’

This World Hunger Day (28 May), our Grants Manager Rebecca Roberts explores the issue of food poverty in London, arguing that we must address the root causes of poverty in order to tackle it.

The rise of food poverty during the COVID-19 crisis has been sharply felt across London. Food aid projects and food banks have sought to plug the gap. With the economic and public health consequences of the pandemic set to endure for many years, it is crucial that whilst we understand that food banks and food aid projects are currently providing essential support, we should never deem them an acceptable solution in our ‘new normal’.

Prior to COVID-19 a staggering 1.5 million adults and 400,000 children in London were already facing food insecurity. As the first wave of the virus hit London in early 2020, demand on food banks and food aid projects sky-rocketed. In the six months to September 2020, food banks in the Trussell Trust network in London distributed 210,000 food packages to people in the capital; a 128% increase compared to the same period in 2019. Those shielding needed urgent access to food, and school closures impacted on children reliant on free school meals.

In response to the unfolding crisis, charities, community groups, businesses and the public all stepped up.

Getting food to people who needed it was a collective priority.

Volunteers, charities and members of the public quickly mobilised to respond. Alongside this, London’s 33 councils redeployed staff, invested in food services and emergency financial aid, and established local food hubs. At the same time, Marcus Rashford and the Child Food Poverty Taskforce, working with the Food Foundation, FareShare and others, raised public awareness about the need for change.

The anti-poverty sector focused their calls on the need for an effective safety net, maintaining the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and investment in local welfare assistance. These efforts, accompanied by an outpouring of public concern, forced the government into a series of U-turns on access to free school meals during holidays, and temporarily maintaining the £20 uplift.

These are significant achievements which should be celebrated. However, Universal Credit, even with the £20 uplift is not enough to lift people out of poverty and whilst free school meals and food banks are essential, they are not sufficient to address the causes of food poverty. Food poverty is a problem of poverty; the condition of not having enough money to live your life. It is a deep structural problem caused by the unfair distribution of resources and power, and the lack of an adequate safety net. To address poverty – and end food poverty – we must tackle these systemic issues. An uplift in income is central to this. We need better work for everyone – where people are paid at least the Living Wage – and a social security system that enables people to afford to put food on the table. It is also crucial to center and empower people with first-hand experience to influence debate, drive change and shape the policy solutions on these issues.

Speaking about the Black Panther food aid and school breakfast initiatives in 1960s America, Huey P Newton described them as 'survival programs pending revolution.’ He said:

During a flood the raft is a life saving device but it is only a means of getting to higher ground. So, too, with survival programs, which are emergency services. In themselves they do not change social conditions but they are life-saving vehicles until conditions change.

This is how we must view food banks; as life-saving vehicles used until conditions change. And conditions must change. Modern-day hunger is unacceptable and it is preventable. It is shocking that the UK, the sixth richest country in the world, has a food poverty rate amongst the highest in Europe.

As we emerge from this crisis, we need to ensure that food banks don’t become the ‘new normal’.

We must address the drivers of poverty and open up possibilities for solidarity and change.

28 May 2021

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What is Trust for London doing to tackle the root causes of food poverty?

Since 2015, Trust for London has provided funding towards Sustain’s London Food Poverty Campaign. Their annual Beyond the Food Bank report includes a league table tracking what London councils are doing to improve household food insecurity across ten measures (Healthy Start, breastfeeding, living wage, physical access, meals on wheels, action plans, council tax reduction, children’s services, free school meals and holiday food provision).

Sustain’s November 2020 report, Response, Resilience and Recovery (which incorporated the Beyond the Food Bank report), highlights the need for 'cash first' approaches to alleviate food poverty and emphasises the importance of councils investing in local food partnerships where the voluntary sector and community groups are equal partners. Sustain’s campaign will continue to produce an annual report and will run food justice campaigning training, in partnership with people with first-hand experience and local partners. Their Food Power project includes a range of resources for action, including a toolkit for empowering people with lived experience of food poverty.

The Trust also provides ongoing support to the Food Foundation’s Young Ambassadors' programme, promoting the Children's Right to Food Charter and ensuring that children and young people have an opportunity to talk about their lived experience of food insecurity, influence policy debates and propose solutions. The Food Foundation’s latest report A Crisis Within a Crisis outlines the impact of COVID-19 on household food insecurity in the UK.

Trust for London’s Decent Living Standards programme prioritises work that seeks to boost incomes through wages or benefits, and bringing down the high cost of living. We have funded work that shines a light on levels of poverty in London, through our London's Poverty Profile. Alongside this is the Trust’s special initiative - the Commission on Social Security, identifying ‘upstream’ interventions to reform the welfare system. Led by Experts by Experience, this project seeks to shift power and make recommendations on how the government could make the welfare benefits system better.