Let’s debate our need for food banks; it’s a national disgrace. My Guardian column, 18th December.

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Jack Monroe
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013
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‘Food banks are not a negative thing – they are evidence of communities getting together to try to help their neighbours, but they should not be needed in one of the richest countries in the world.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Two weeks ago, along with the Trussell Trust and the Unite union, I launched a petition in the Daily Mirror calling for parliament to debate hunger and food bank use in the UK.

By the end of the first day, 63,000 people had signed it. By the end of the second day, that number topped 100,000, the usual tipping point for a petition to be discussed in parliament. On the third day, we received confirmation that the Labour party was going to raise it as an opposition day debate in the House of Commons.

A week after it launched, we handed the petition in to parliament. It had over 130,000 signatures on it, and the number is still rising.

The volume of support for the petition and the speed at which the debate was secured was only a slight surprise – as food banks have barely been out of the public eye since Oxfam released its report, Walking The Breadline, which showed that half a million people in the UK were relying on emergency food handouts in order to feed themselves and their families.

When I spoke at the Conservative party conference (and, just to clarify, they revoked my pass a few days before the event because I was a “dissenter”, but I got it back with a bit of a public backlash…), several senior Tories agreed with me when I said we needed an inquiry into the causes of food bank use in the UK, and the alarming rise in the number of people receiving referrals.

Cards were exchanged, promises made, emails sent to arrange meetings. Several months later, the empty promises have petered out. It seems the old adage is true – if you want something done, you should do it yourself.

Trussell Trust food banks provide three days’ worth of nutritionally balanced food and support to people in crisis. Over 90% of food given out by food banks is donated by the public. Every food bank user is referred by a frontline professional such as a doctor, social worker, or school liaison officer.

Food banks also refer recipients to other agencies to help resolve the underlying cause of the crisis, whether that is a family support worker, drug and alcohol intervention, debt advice, domestic abuse specialists or other agencies.

In themselves, food banks are not a negative thing– they are evidence of a community coming together to meet the needs of its neighbours. But the need for food banks in Britain is a disgrace, and that’s what I want investigated.

Hundreds of people have emailed to say they have asked their MP to represent them in parliament, to stand up for hungry people in their constituencies – people in work, out of work, living on their own, with children, without children, all struggling to put food on the table in one of the richest countries in the world.

Guto Bebb, Conservative MP for Aberconwy, responded: “There are some who appear to use food banks while being able to smoke and pay for a Sky TV package.” One Tory minister fobbed off a constituent by saying he was unable to attend the debate as the issue wasn’t in his ministerial remit.

I’m not going into parliament to point fingers or lay blame. I hope to achieve an open discussion and debate about an issue that has been ignored by the government for far too long. Together we have achieved more than I thought possible in just a fortnight, and every extra voice strengthens the campaign for an open and honest debate.

Thank you to everyone who has signed the petition so far – I’m off to address MPs in a lunchtime lobby event in order to share my experiences and try to challenge the damaging and distracting “fags and Sky TV” rhetoric that gets rolled out every time someone dares to mention a food bank. For those that haven’t signed the petition, there’s still time at: change.org/foodbanks

First published in the Guardian, 18th December, and can be found online here.

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe

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Categories: Blog

10 Comments »

  1. Sadly, Jack, Food Banks and their use are a sign of the economic woes we are in. A lot of people are unable to find work, and then there are some of us who can’t work, and are forced to rely on government benefits (I’m in the United States, so for me it’s Social Security (I’m permanently disabled) and Food Stamps (often called EBT)).

    Even with the income of cash & food stamps monthly, I’m occasionally forced to go to a food bank to supplement what I have (or don’t have, for that matter).

    Everything is getting more expensive because gasoline (Petroleum) is getting more expensive. That and inflation are absolutely wrecking those of us on the bottom of the economic ladder.

    It isn’t like I can “get a better job”, or “get promoted” or even “work more overtime”. My income is fixed and likely to take a shellacking soon if some Congress folk don’t find a cure for their cranial rectumitis.

    …ugh, politics.

  2. Foodbanks are evidence that the changes to welfare benefits are harming the people they are designed to help. It is clear and certain proof that we are failing the poorest in our society, and starving them. It should be a matter of public shame that our people are driven to use these means to get food.

    The whole ethos of a society which has a safety net for those who are least able to look after themselve has been undermined by a system which has become unfriendly, commercially-driven and punitive for people who are deserving of our help. If these people had any alternatives they wouldn’t be using food banks – and they are only allowed access to them in the short term *anyway*.

    Our country SHOULD be reviewing the provision of state benefits and ensuring that NO-ONE in the UK today has to resort to a food bank. Anything less is not something I want to support.

  3. I honestly had hoped the conservatives would take it seriously, they are just labour bashing as always… No solutions, just rising inequality.

  4. In March this year I set up a resource for local people called St Paul’s Pantry, a food bank for those wishing to use the term. We have an existing network in the community as we have supported local people with varying levels of need for some 26 years. We worked through the Thatcher years and all the madness that has followed but I never imagined handing food to people whose need had arisen from being sanctioned. As a nation we have given power to civil servants to withhold the most basic right a member of of community should be afforded. We are acting subhuman.

    If we read of such things taking place in other countries we would be moved to challenge the Government responsible. Our nation is so busily divided and our politician so consumed with their own position that some of its citizens are crushed. Have we got so many food banks because we have lost the ability to vote appropriately?

  5. Can i just say and this maybe in the wrong section but after watching you on the benefits debate last night and also watching benefits street i find it hard to take that the people who were on that show and given the food bank items were then back at their houses smoking cigarettes which cost an absolute fortune. Average cost of cigarettes is £7.00 per pack, dont you think people should quit smoking, drinking alcohol (also expensive) before being given handouts. I say this as an ex smoker who thought i would never quit because it was to hard. I can see from your blog you work hard to feed your son nutritious food on a budget but on this programme the children were eating food which i would class as expensive, lollies, chocolate cakes etc.

  6. I suppose reading and watching as an American I am confused as to why food banks are a political debate or why politicians are even talking about this issue. In America, the private sector (including charities) are free to do as they like as long as its legal, and is done without government intervention or debate. The benefits system here is divided into food stamps and general welfare payments (such as cash, low income housing benefit, fuel benefit etc) and the food stamps or EBT portion can ONLY be used to buy food – non taxed food (no alcohol or vitamin supplements or take-out food) and when that runs out people go to food banks either run independently by charities or churches. All done without government debate or intervention. In fact, the government here actively encourages people to go to food pantries so that food stamp burden on the state is not so much. I’ve always believed that for every family who desperately need food aid, there is another that is scrounging – the law of averages dictate this, but it doesn’t mean that you cut off vital benefits to all people because a few are taking advantage. With any welfare and benefits system, you have to expect some are scrounging. However, in the US, we do not have unlimited benefits unless you are elderly or disabled and we have routine re-certifications of income in order continue receiving benefits. The annual benefits bill in Britain is atrocious by any standards and is unsustainable, to an outsider it would appear that too large of the population percentage are dependent on welfare and that’s not sustainable. But instead of just cutting benefits, perhaps more checks and balances can be inserted into existing system to root out and weed out the ones that should be in work. Even you, Jack, must agree that whole families where 3 plus generations of people have never had a job in their lives isn’t acceptable.

    • The ‘whole families where three generations of people have never has a job in their lives’ – a few charities did research into this claim and couldn’t find a single one. The ‘three generations’ would include the second world war, and my father’s generation. I genuinely don’t believe the benefits bill is ‘so high’ because there’s these mythical ‘three non working generations’. Feel free to prove me wrong.

      • The bottom line is that there ought to be a balance between creating an adequate safety net so for when people fall on hard times (whether the reason their ‘fault’ or not – no one should be allowed to starve) but also encouraging people to get back on their feet as part of that safety net. And regardless of the circumstances – NO ONE should be allowed to starve. And I suppose my confusion is the strong opposition in some quarters regarding food pantries (Edwina Currie and her ilk). These are normally run by charities and churches thus out of the purview of the government. And the welfare bill in Britain is high – compares to the U.S. – from the view of the percentage of all tax incoming vs. the amount going to welfare, I believe it’s around 25% in Britain? Our congress would see red if that were the case here. I admire what you do – I really do. I think you point out a discussion that’s missing on both sides of the pond – which is food poverty. People speak a lot about poverty in general, unemployment, lack of access to housing etc but not specifically about food poverty. I just wish you can take a more balanced view. As for 3 generations not working – they are younger than yourself. And they do exist and they would exist more here in the US too if welfare reform legislation weren’t passed. I suppose you will get your message across more effectively, reach more people and subject to less vitriol from the Right if you present a more balanced view. Yes, there are benefit scroungers, there are people who do just sit on their duff and feel that it’s their right to get something for nothing. They do exist and the law of averages dictate that whether you can find an actual documented case of that is beside the point. And the whole benefits and entitlements system does need to be reformed or else there will be nothing left for your son or my children. The key is to do it without causing massive suffering from those that need it most. However, the large majority of the population wish to be self sufficient in a decent job earning decent wages and these days that’s easier said than done. And people who disagree on some points with you are not necessarily against you, people such as myself. It would suit your cause and the people you are trying to help if you took a more balanced approach. That’s just my personal opinion. It’s the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US and so I wish you and your family the best. Keep up the good work, your message and those yummy recipes are much needed. You and I need to have a budget cook off one day. Cheers and much love to you and your family.

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