ON THE FRONTLINE: Why we need to listen to the people experiencing foodbank Britain

ON THE FRONTLINE: Why we need to listen to the people experiencing foodbank Britain

Kayleigh Garthwaite

My new book, Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain, chronicles my time as a volunteer and a researcher inside a Trussell Trust foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees. One of the main reasons I decided to write the book was to give an account of foodbank use from the inside, telling people’s own stories in their own words. After spending almost two years, and hundreds of hours inside the foodbank as a volunteer and researcher, I wanted to make the voices of people using the foodbank heard above the negative yet popular rhetoric which blames and shames people in poverty for their own situation.

Since 2010, Britain has been experiencing a foodbank explosion. Although provision of informal food aid in the UK has existed for many years, it has not been widely publicised, documented or understood. There were no UK-focused newspaper articles about foodbank use before 2008 and few until 2012 when the number increased dramatically. But the ongoing rise of the Trussell Trust foodbank network has brought the issue of hunger and its causes right into the public consciousness. In 2004 the Trust ran only two foodbanks. Today, there are over 400. In 2009/10, their foodbanks helped 41,000 people. In 2014/15, for the first time, over one million people received emergency food, an eight fold increase from 2011/12. The latest figures show that again, over one million people are using foodbanks.

During this period of foodbank growth, the Coalition government – in a continuation of Labour policies –introduced several welfare reforms under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which include caps on levels of entitlement, the ‘under occupancy charge’ (or ‘bedroom tax’ as it is more commonly known) being introduced to Housing Benefit, longer waiting periods between unemployment and benefit eligibility, and the establishment of local welfare assistance to replace the discretionary social fund. This is set against a backdrop of harsh sanctioning, benefit changes, and rising food and fuel costs, which have led to more and more people being pushed over the edge into poverty.

Academics from the University of Oxford predicting that 2 million people will need to use foodbanks by 2017 as further welfare cuts of £12 billion were outlined in Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s July 2015 budget. Added to this is the uncertainty of the recent EU Referendum result and what it will mean for employment, food and fuel prices, and the future of the economy. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has warned that low-income households are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of Brexit. Under a worst-case scenario, some low-income households could lose as much as £5,542 a year in tax credits and benefit payments in 2020, which would surely result in more people heading towards the foodbank.

But where are the voices of the people who are actually using foodbanks? Headline statistics of one million people using foodbanks can only tell us so much. I often get asked who the typical foodbank user was. Is it single men? Young women with children? Do people who work use a foodbank? But in reality, there is no such thing as a typical foodbank user. Some weeks there would be more young single men who had been sanctioned. Other weeks, especially in the school holidays, I would see more families with children, mothers who skip meals in a fraught attempt to make their money cover the additional expense of the six week’ holidays. There were the recently widowed older women who were finding it impossible to navigate their daily lives on just one income; the middle aged men on the sick because of an accident at work, who weren’t getting proper sick pay as their employer didn’t pay it out. I spoke to people aged between 16 and 63 – teenagers, middle aged, pensioners, young couples,– who all told me their stories while they waited for their food parcel. I found that there were three groups of reasons why people used the foodbank:

  • The result of an immediate income crisis, often due to problems with benefits, such as sanctions and delays
  • Longer term income insecurity, including fuel poverty, low paid work, debt, and homelessness
  • ‘Tipping points’ such as ill health, bereavement, and relationship breakdown

However, these categories were not static and separate. The referral agency is required to tick only one box on the red voucher, but in the majority of cases people using the foodbank could have ticked multiple boxes – if someone was dealing with a benefit delay, low income and debt were often associated with that. Ill health was often present, but you would rarely find it recorded on the voucher as a contributing factor. Everyone I met was different. What linked them together, though, was a sense of shame, frustration, anger, and a refusal to give in, meaning that using a foodbank was very much a last resort.

It’s not easy for anyone to walk through the doors of a foodbank – for the volunteers, for the support workers, for me, but most of all, for the people asking for emergency food. The foodbank was often described as something only to be drawn on when people “had no choice”. Shame and embarrassment meant people waited until they had exhausted all other avenues of support available to them, such as relying on family and friends to loan them money, have meals with, or pay off their debts, before they asked for a red voucher. I met people who thought their benefits would stop if they came to a foodbank. People who were afraid their kids would get taken away by Social Services because they didn’t have enough money to feed them. People who would not tell close family and friends just how much they were struggling because they felt too ashamed. When people did overcome their fears, the actual experience of using the foodbank was often not so negative. The tables set up cafe style, with pretty orange, pink, and white checked tablecloths, plates of biscuits and little crystal bowls of sugar attempted to create a non-judgemental and relaxed atmosphere. Homemade cakes or slices of toast would be offered to people while they chatted to the volunteers and waited for their food parcel.

The stories of the people we meet in ‘Hunger Pains’ offer a serious challenge to contemporary thinking about the factors driving increasing foodbank use, and help to dispel the damaging myths that people who use a foodbank are simply seeking emergency food as a result of their own flawed lifestyle choices. All of the evidence in the book shows why we need a new conversation about foodbanks that looks at the actual, lived experiences of people who are using them. Now, more than ever in the wake of the EU referendum result, it is vital that we talk about the complexities and barriers people face, whether they only use the foodbank once or are frequent visitors, over time. We need to talk about the impossibility of managing when waiting three weeks for a delayed benefit payment, or when a benefits sanction means six months with zero income. We need to think about poorly paid, insecure work which doesn’t protect people from poverty. We need to realise just how damaging the stigma, shame and negativity cruelly attached to people experiencing the sharp end of austerity can be, and how this can worsen already poor health. People going hungry and getting by on low incomes are habitually made to feel guilty and experience shame – but where is the collective shame that one of the world’s richest economies relies on emergency food aid to feed a growing number of its population?


Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Research Associate in the Centre for Health and Inequalities Research, Durham University. Kayleigh explores issues of health inequalities, welfare reform, and austerity through ethnographic research. She can be followed on Twitter @KA_Garthwaite

7 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 13, 2016

    The “one million myth” again! The BBC article on this topic included: “Correction: The Trussell Trust has clarified that its earlier figure of more than a million people using food banks actually referred to the number of times food was given out.” bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32406120 .


  2. Avatar
    July 21, 2016

    I had hoped that my comment above would receive some acknowledgement or, at the very least, lay the myth to rest. Alas, in a subsequent edition of the Radio 4/OU programme Thinking Allowed, Laurie Taylor introduced Kayleigh Garthwaite by advising us that, according to the Trussell Trust, “one million people” had received food aid, an assertion she made no effort to refute: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07krdvv . There can be no excuse for this. The Trust has made clear that the figure refers to the total number of three-day supplements handed out, with each member of any family counted separately.

    A clue may be found on the programme’s website, which talks of “… hundreds of people who depend on emergency food provision, one of the most controversial by products (sic) of the UK government’s ‘austerity’ programme. Critics of these economic policies claim that food poverty has now become a major issue for many citizens.” The reluctance of sociologists to allow the facts to get in the way of left-wing party-political propaganda has done little to enhance the reputation of the discipline. As I have said elsewhere, “The persistence of an ideology that was comprehensively discredited more than seventy years ago partly explains why, in a recent edition, Discover Society Chairman David Walker spoke of, “social science’s cultural weakness and its lack of purchase on public imagination and decision-making” http://discoversociety.org/2016/05/03/uk-social-science-past-imperfect-future-tense/#comments .”

    There is an interesting sociological/psychological issue here: why is the “million” figure so important? It’s what we engineers call “terrify ‘em with zeros.” A million is usually held to be the ideal number, trite, impressive, and very difficult to visualize. Take an example I’ve seen recently: hydraulic fracture (fracking) requires several million liters of water and this will exacerbate an already difficult supply situation in the south east of the country. How big is a million liters? Well, probably not quite as big as Loch Ness but pretty (expletive) huge. After all, it’s a MILLION! If milk came in cubic cartons they would be ten centimeters square so a cubic meter would contain a thousand of them. A million would fit into a ten-meter cube. A tank of the dimensions of Usain Bolt’s running track would contain a billion liters, which is more than sufficient for every likely bore this century. No, such usage won’t turn the home counties into a dustbowl!

    How would an observer possessed of normal numeracy skills respond to the report three million meal-days have been dispensed by a foodbank? The time period isn’t defined precisely so, for ease of calculation, let’s say 360 days and assume a UK population of around sixty million. This gives just over twenty-one billion meal-days, which means that the foodbank accounts one meal in every seven thousand two hundred, or 0.014%. Taxpayers may be excused for failing to see this as the end of civilization as we know it or as a damming indictment of “the UK government’s ‘austerity’ programme.” “Critics of these economic policies” should be asked to put up or shut up. What figure would be acceptable? 0.01%? 0.001%? And how much largess, in the form of uncapped and unconditional benefits would be required to get there? Anyone seeking to mitigate “social science’s cultural weakness and its lack of purchase on public imagination and decision-making” should speak now.


    • Avatar
      July 21, 2016

      Dear Iain,

      Thank you for this, and sorry I missed your comment first time around.

      We actually had a discussion about this very issue after Thinking Allowed, as it was flagged up that people may get in touch to say the one million figure was incorrect. I said ‘There were one million people using foodbanks. Yes, some of them are not unique users, but they are still people’. The Trussell Trusy website clearly states: 1,109,309 three day emergency food supplies were provided to people in crisis. Also, the one million figure fails to take into account the many thousands of people using independent food banks across the country, so we are actually talking about well more than one million people who are seeking emergency food aid.

      I have written about the furore around the Trussell Trust statistics in the book, and it’s actually one of the reasons I decided to write the book in the first place – to give a voice to the people behind the numbers.

      All best wishes,



  3. Avatar
    July 26, 2016

    Dear Kayleigh,
    Thank you for taking the trouble to reply. I agree, and this is why I invented the concept of the “meal-day” to get a handle on the scale of the problem. Certainly people are using foodbanks beyond the Trust but I also assumed that, to get to the magic million, “2015/16” refers to a period rather longer than 360 days. If I concede that 0.02% of meals are provided by food aid, can we tackle the implications, as I outline in the last paragraph? If you intend to “crash” the problem, how much more expenditure would be needed?

    I should, perhaps, explain that in critical path analysis engineers speak of “crashing” a problem – simply throwing more resources at it – and “refining” – examining it in more detail. Reading your article and listening to the programme, it seems we may distinguish between the acute and chronic use of foodbanks. Acute usage would appear to be the result of a sudden emergency, often caused by the vagaries of a ludicrously complex benefits system. I would regard the foodbank as a sensible and cost effective solution here and, as a taxpayer, I believe we should reimburse the charities. Since most people on benefits don’t utilize foodbanks, chronic users should probably be encouraged to make some lifestyle changes.

    Ah well, time for a bacon sandwich. I don’t know how much of the “Discover Society” rag you read but I found this one quite amusing: http://discoversociety.org/2016/05/03/viewpoint-killers-or-carers-who-do-we-think-we-are-when-it-comes-to-other-animals/#comments

    Very best wishes to all, Iain

    I sent the following to the programme (i.e. what you won’t hear on Thinking Allowed tomorrow – 27/7/2016):

    Dear Laurie,

    As nearly as I can calculate from the data you provide, foodbanks account for roughly one meal in seven thousand. This indicates that the present arrangements for feeding the population of Britain, including most people in receipt of benefits, are 99.98% effective – hardly, I suggest, a damming indictment.

    Sincerely, Iain


  4. Avatar
    August 08, 2016

    I’m sorry Mr. Salisbury (or are you ‘Lord’ Salisbury?), you’ve got it wrong. You like to do numbers, so let’s do some numbers. How many DIFFERENT people are using foodbanks? To make this a conservative estimate, we’ll need to assume the ones affected are using them quite often – let’s say ten times a year. That means that 100,000 people in this country are unable to feed themselves for ten three day periods a year. If you think that this is perfectly acceptable you are grotesquely out of touch with what normal people find acceptable.

    You are wrong about one more thing: ‘austerity’ does not require scare quotes. It’s not a left-wing pejorative term for a reasonable economic policy; it is a polite euphemism for a heartless and brutal disregard for the suffering of people who are, in their concrete reality, invisible to people like you.


  5. Avatar
    August 09, 2016

    Since my title and social standing seem to be an issue for you, Dave, I’m neither a “Mr.” nor a “Lord.” Much as I like to tease my friends at the University of Texas at Tyler, who feel that the most trivial event in 1920 justifies an “historical marker,” with tales of Shakespeare, Harry, and Agincourt, I actually hale from the Hundred of Wirral (AKA Murkeyside). The northern Salisburys are not related and originate in the Lancashire village of Salesbury, in the Ribble Valley. It means “settlement by a cataract with willows,” the name “Sally” and Yeats’s “Salley Gardens” being allusions to willow. Formally, I’m “Dr.” (University of Birmingham 1978) but, since electron microscopy has little relevance in the present context, just “Iain” will do fine. Following WWII conscription, my father (infirm but still hearty) worked as a clerk for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. If, as some have suggested, I have been “upwardly mobile,” this is due to the quality of my parenting (I discuss this elsewhere in this rag: http://discoversociety.org/2016/07/05/mental-capital-neuroscience-and-early-intervention/#comment-870504 ), assisted by a state education that included a grammar school. Further biographical data may be found at http://www.crcummins.com/ewhawkins/salisbury.html although the photo should be kept from invalids and persons of a nervous disposition and NOT used to frighten children.
    To work: my calculation was based on a million three-day packages, since that was the data I had available, while you prefer 100,000 thirty-day referrals. My understanding is that the Trussell Trust discourages such usage but I fail to see how this would alter the overall picture in any case?
    I maintain that at least 99.98% of meals, including most for those dependent on state benefits, are not provided by food aid. It is certainly unfortunate that a small number of people is unable to manage on incomes most find adequate but, “if you think that [it] is perfectly acceptable” to flay the taxpayer mercilessly on their behalf “you are grotesquely out of touch with what normal people find acceptable.” So, perhaps you will answer the questions I raise above? If 99.98% doesn’t represent the point of diminishing returns, what figure would you find acceptable, how would you reach it, how much would it cost, and where would you find the cash in a country that “thirteen wasted years of Labour misrule,” as Harold Wilson didn’t quite put it, left not only penniless but stifled with debt?
    We have left behind the era when Chancellors like Dennis Healey could dump us in the mire by attempting to “squeeze the rich till the pips squeak,” or shadows like John McDonnell could achieve any credibility by promising to “soak the rich,” so, ideologically-driven excursions to the outer reaches of the Laffer curve notwithstanding, where do we find the resources? We may raise people from poverty only, I’m afraid, by growing the economy through a “reasonable economic policy.” We may compare glorious, socialist France – unemployment 10.5% and rising, youth unemployment 24% – with nasty, liberal, neoliberal, conservative, capitalist, austerity-ridden, Thatcherite, Britain – unemployment 4.9% and falling, youth unemployment 11.7% (13.4% a year ago). When the economic migrants are camped at our end of the Channel Tunnel – http://discoversociety.org/2016/05/03/making-sense-of-the-politics-of-volunteering-and-camp-conditions-in-calais/#comments – I’ll be prepared to consider the possibility that austerity has gone too far and that life for the supposedly “invisible people” is unacceptable.