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The Foodbank is the Canary in the Coalmine of Neoliberalism

A callous welfare system, wage poverty, austerity and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a 33 per cent increase in Trussell Trust foodbank use between 2019-20 and 2020-21.  The Trussell Trust’s network of 1,471 foodbanks in England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland distributed 2.4 million emergency food parcels to ‘people in crisis’ from April 2020 to March 2021, 980,000 of whom were children.  The extraordinary scaling up of foodbank use has seen the number of emergency food parcels increase from 61,000 in 2010-11 to more than two million a decade later. 

This timescale coincided with the aftershocks of the 2008 global financial crisis when ‘neo-liberal economic orthodoxy that ran the world for 30 years suffered a heart attack of epic proportions’.   The austerity-driven response to the crisis in the UK saw the poverty gap widen, life expectancy stop growing, home ownership decline and household debt accelerate.

The foodbank has become a barometer of this acceleration of poverty and, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in foodbank visits by 40 per cent in the middle of 2020.  I visited the South-West Foodbank in my constituency of west Belfast which serves a cluster of local communities, that includes a Nationalist and Loyalist interface area.  I aimed to find out how usage has changed during the pandemic. 

The South-West foodbank

The Trussell Trust distributed 78,827 food parcels in the north of Ireland in 2020-21 which represented an increase of 33,693 on the previous year.  47,799 were distributed to adults and 31,028 to children.  Belfast alone distributed 15,778 food parcels, up 4,144 on 2019-20.  The legacy of conflict and a weak economy has contributed to high levels of poverty.  Edel Diamond is manager of the South-West foodbank which is located at an interface between the Nationalist Lenadoon and Loyalist Suffolk communities which have suffered longstanding inter-communal violence and tension, and are still addressing the legacies of conflict.  But the geographical catchment area of this foodbank includes a cluster of other communities that have high levels of poverty.  Edel sits with two mobile phones in front of her that ring constantly as we meet.  The calls are alternately from ‘clients’ or food suppliers.  ‘I hate that word’, says Edel of the term ‘client’.  The cold neoliberal speak that deems a user a ‘client’ is out of step with the ethos of the foodbank.  ‘They are human beings’, she says, ‘looking for help’. 

Edel manages fifty volunteers from the doorman who greets me on arrival to take my details for track and trace purposes to drivers, administrative staff, and those who prepare food parcels for distribution.  A huge container at the rear of the building holds food supplies and the shelves inside are neatly labelled with a diversity of foodstuffs.  The offices contain four types of pre-prepared food parcels ready to go: families of 2-4 members, 3-4, 5 plus and singles.  Edel explains the referral system.  A number of ‘agents’ that include social services, community organisations and mental health teams provide people in distress with red food vouchers each with a unique serial number.  The vouchers are redeemed for 3-4 days’ food offering three meals a day.   The serial numbers are recorded on a database which contributes to The Trussell Trust’s bi-annual reports on food supplies given to people in crisis.  A maximum of three vouchers are meant to be offered but if the need for support continues then it is provided.

When the pandemic started, she began receiving calls from workers in hospitality suddenly made unemployed, taxi drivers unable to work, and workers in the gig economy which ground to a halt.  Her foodbank also supports Syrian refugees re-settled by the government, single parents, the bereaved and people suffering from long-term illness.  Many of the foodbank users are caught in a crisis created by the five week wait for Universal Credit.  To enable users from falling into long-term debt, the foodbank sometimes provides short-term cash payments to help bridge the five-week gap to UC.  She encourages users to avoid, if at all possible, from applying for bridge or crisis loans from government that will be deducted from future welfare payments and could ultimately create another crisis.  When we discuss the impact of the pandemic, I’m told it not only sharply increased food emergencies but the way the foodbank operated as users could no longer access the building and food items had to be sanitised.  This meant increases in deliveries, particularly as family food parcels included several bags of groceries that could not be carried by users. 

Sometimes crises beget crises.  Losing a loved one to COVID-19 can result in lost income and reduced circumstances that compound grief with increased poverty.  A woman forced to leave the family home due to domestic violence will have to make a fresh claim for welfare support.  A benefit sanction or an error in the intrusive and challenging application process can mean re-setting to the start of the five week wait for UC.  For those trapped in the terrifying prospect of poverty and hunger, the foodbank is more than a temporary supply of food but a source of comfort, advice and signposting to support.

Artificial scarcity

If social security benefits are designed to help people in distress, then evidence from The Trussell Trust suggests that UC is compounding the causes and effects of poverty and punishing the poor for their own poverty.   What is driving foodbank use is not food scarcity but an artificial scarcity created by an unfair benefits system and wages failing to keep pace with inflation.   Margaret Kelly, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, has recently reported that the introduction of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a benefit for people aged between 16 and 64 with a long term health condition or impairment, has resulted in repeated failings that have led to ‘many claims being unfairly rejected’.  Capita, a private consultancy, carries out PIP assessments on behalf of the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland and was found by the Ombudsman to focus assessments more on entitlement to PIP rather than the ‘complainant’s medical condition’.  This appears to be more evidence of a system designed to reduce the welfare budget than assist those in need.

But if the primary reason for food shortages isn’t food scarcity but low pay, benefits cuts, the Gig economy, zero-hour contracts, and debt then are foodbanks able to address these structural causes of poverty?   ‘Food banks are becoming embedded within welfare provision’, argues Beck, ‘fuelled by corporate involvement and ultimately creating an industry of poverty’.  The Trussell Trust argues that it provides a research base on which to campaign for welfare reform and carries out advocacy work to end the need for foodbanks.  There is no desire, suggests the chief executive of The Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, for foodbanks to ‘become the new normal’ as a permanent part of the welfare architecture.  Whether you see the network of foodbanks as an unofficial, corporate-backed appendage to the welfare system or an independent voice of tireless volunteers providing emergency support to those who need it most, there is no brooking the argument that their use is rapidly escalating.  And, by monitoring that usage, The Trussell Trust and other networks provide invaluable evidence of the extent of government failings in meeting the welfare needs of the poor or addressing the structural causes of poverty.  Moreover, should the government go ahead in September with an announced withdrawal of a £20 uplift to Universal Credit introduced during the pandemic, then this could push an additional 500,000 claimants below the poverty line, vulnerable to food poverty.

When asked why he decided to probe the impact of austerity in the UK in 2018, Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said it was “Primarily because it was a laboratory for neoliberal economic approaches to welfare’, adding that “The food bank is the perfect indicator of failed government policies’.  If the foodbank is the current canary in the coalmine of neoliberalism then the foodbank network is sending out worrying evidence of a widening contagion of poverty.  We would be foolish to ignore it.