Two conflicting narratives have dominated the aftermath of the financial crisis, particularly over the past year. On the one hand, the Irish and British governments are suggesting that we are over the worst and on the path to a more prosperous future and, on the other, frontline care providers speak of people cut adrift by the state and left in highly vulnerable, dangerous and impoverished conditions. Barometers of this impoverishment include rising homelessness, the distribution of food parcels and hot meals to those on the poverty threshold, and the use of foodbanks. Statistics on foodbank use in the UK released by the Trussell Trust for 2013-14 showed over 900,000 people in crisis being provided with emergency food. This total represented a 163 percent increase on usage compared to the previous year with the number of new foodbanks (45 percent increase) unable to keep pace with demand.
Food banks in north of Ireland
In the north of Ireland, there was a dramatic leap of foodbanks users from 1,987 in 2012-13 to 11,697 in
2013-14 with the number of foodbanks increasing from just one in 2011 to the
current figure of 15. More alarming still is the suggestion from Chris Mould, Chairman of the Trussell Trust, that these figures represent the tip of the iceberg as they don’t “include those helped by other emergency providers, those living in towns where there is no foodbank, people who are too ashamed to seek help or the large number of people who are only just coping by eating less and buying cheap food”. A survey conducted by the Trussell Trust and Netmums of 2,178 working families in March 2014 showed that: one in five working parents had to choose between paying an essential bill or putting food on the table within the past year; 43 percent are “just about coping” with balancing family budgets; and 1 in 40 had used a foodbank with 70 percent saying they would only do so as a “last resort”.
Trussell Trust food banks operate on a referral basis where clients can receive vouchers from a frontline care professional. Each voucher can be redeemed for three days emergency food which can be accessed on three occasions. At the same time, clients are signposted to agencies that can provide more long-term solutions to their problems. The food is donated by schools, churches, businesses, individuals and through supermarket collections. There are now 423 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK with two new foodbanks opening every week generated by 8,000 tonnes of donated food and staffed by 30,000 volunteers.
Food banks in the south of Ireland
The main distributor of food through food banks in the south of Ireland is the charity Crosscare based in Dublin. Crosscare has operated a food distribution warehouse since 1989 which has supplied food to charities such as St Vincent de Paul, Dublin Simon, Focus Ireland and its own centres for the homeless. Given the worsening economic situation in Ireland and increasing demand for emergency food aid, Crosscare established four new community food banks in Blanchardstown, Bray, Swords and Tallaght. Crosscare estimates that 60 families per week receive support from each food bank and has plans to open more food banks in Carlow and Cork. In 2013, Crosscare distributed 450 tonnes of redistributed food providing over 180,000 meals based on the calculation that 1 tonne supplies 400 meals. This surplus food is supplied by manufacturers, retailers and distributors and much of it is normally used as animal feed by pig farmers and has been diverted to families in need.
Additional providers of emergency food aid in the south of Ireland include Twist Soup Kitchen Ireland which have opened premises in Athlone, Galway, Roscommon, Sligo and Tuam which are collectively feeding 300 people daily. The Capuchin Day Centre run by the Franciscan Order provides nearly 600 meals a day six days a week as well as distributing 1,200 food parcels weekly. The food poverty charity, Healthy Food for All, estimates that one in ten people are living in food poverty in Ireland which is defined as ‘the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability and access to food with related impacts on health, culture and social participation”. A common message beating out from all of these charities and community groups is that the pressure on their services is growing as the economic recession deepens.
Explaining demand for food banks
The Trussell Trust and other emergency food providers identify several factors that have explained the spike in food bank use. These include: static incomes, rising living costs, low pay, under-employment and problems with benefits. The latter is particularly prominent in the UK due to changes in the welfare system such as the Bedroom Tax and increasingly harsh benefit sanctions which can result in the withdrawal of payments. The Trussell Trust has found that “83 percent of food banks surveyed reported that benefits sanctions, which have become increasingly harsh, have caused more people to be referred to them for emergency food in the last year”. Food prices are another important determinant in explaining food bank use. A report from Advice NI found that “households in Northern Ireland came the closest to any UK region to spending 10% of their income on food” with the annual household bill in2012 “joint-highest with London at £3,201”.
The rising use of food banks should be a wake-up call for governments to rethink austerity programmes and welfare reforms that are removing the safety blankets put in place after the Second World War to protect those most exposed to market forces. Food banks are used reluctantly by the majority of users in times of real distress and probably signify a deeper and more widespread level of need that will become more manifest going forward. If food banks become increasingly institutionalised and woven into community life we may simply manage the problem of food shortages rather than address the deeper structural causes of economic injustice which give rise to these shortages. To remove the need for food banks we need to change trajectory away from the naked neoliberalism that caused the economic crisis in the first instance and the austerity-driven economic progamme that is clearly failing to address this crisis.
Advice, ‘Turning the Tide: The Growth of Food Banks in Northern Ireland’, December 2013, available: http://www.debtactionni.net/sites/default/files/resources/AdviceNI%20Food%20Banks%20Policy%20paper.pdf, accessed 13 May 2014.
Capuchin Day Centre, http://www.capuchinfranciscans.ie/
Crosscare Food Bank, available: http://www.crosscare.ie/crosscarefoodbank.ie/, accessed: 13 May 2014.
Healthy Food for All, http://healthyfoodforall.com/food-poverty/
Trussell Trust Foodbank End of Financial Year Figures 2013-14 – Northern Ireland, 16 April 2014.
Trussell Trust, “Record Numbers turn to Foodbanks in Northern Ireland: Life has got worse not better for poorest in 2013/14, 16 April 2014.
Trusell Trust web site contains a range of statistics on food bank use, available: http://www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-projects, accessed 13 May 2014.
Twist Soup Kitchen, http://www.twistsoupkitchen.org/
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