New research from Church Urban Fund suggests that 1 in 50 people used a food bank in 2016, a total of 1 million adults. The figure doesn’t include children and other household members who may accompany each food bank user. In addition to those receiving food aid, many more adults reported missing meals and experiencing anxiety about whether they could afford food and other essentials. In total UN figures suggest that 10% of the UK’s adult population experience food insecurity, the worst figure in Europe.
The main causes of this food poverty in the UK are benefit delays, changes and sanctions; low wages; gaps between welfare and employment income; and increasing pressures on household budgets from housing and fuel costs. For households under financial pressure, food is often the most flexible part of the budget and is only accounted for after fixed costs such as rent and bills have been paid.
In 2014, our own survey of food banks and food bank users within the Diocese (‘999 Food: Emergency Food Aid in the Thames Valley’) highlighted stories where one or more of these issues played a role. Karen, a single parent with two young children used a local food bank when low paid cleaning work made it difficult for her to cope with her bills and clothing her children as she moved off benefits. John, a carpenter, needed the food bank when he struggled to find work and was unable to get to the Job Centre 15 miles away. His benefits were stopped and he needed to wait for a final decision on his future income. Many of the issues encountered then are likely to have been exacerbated by further cuts and the introduction of Universal Credit which has significant delays in initial payments.
‘999 Food’ shows the ways in which stories of hunger often interweave with stories of abuse, addiction, debt, disability and inadequate state support systems. But it also shows the holistic ways in which many Christian groups have responded. In Bicester the food bank works with the Salvation Army drug and alcohol service and encourages families to come in and chat as they collect parcels, giving an opportunity for volunteers to identify and respond to any other needs clients may have. In Reading, the ‘Readifood’ project serves rough sleepers, runs a small housing project and works with the council to ensure those in crisis receive three-day food parcels through a delivery system and drop-in centres.
More recently, churches have been turning their attention to the gap in food provision for children during school holidays. It is estimated that 3 million children may be at risk of hunger during these breaks including 1 million who would normally receive free school meals. In Milton Keynes, an area where 1 in 5 children live in poverty, St Mark’s MK has been serving two meals a week during the school holidays since 2015. Many churches involved in this work are trained and equipped by ‘Make Lunch’, an organisation which offers training and resources for churches and schools to enable them to offer free meals in the school holidays.
This autumn organisations like CAP are tackling the same issue on a national level, working alongside End Hunger UK in supporting a bill proposed by Frank Fields MP which would provide free meals and activities during the school holidays, paid for through the new tax on sugary drinks.