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Why is Oxfam working with food banks in the UK?

Posted by Jo Harrison Communication Officer, UK Poverty Programme

24th Apr 2013

Why is Oxfam working with food banks in the UK?

There's a saying in my home town of Wigan, in the North of England, that's often shouted at football matches and displayed on souvenirs. It goes 'We come from Wigan and we live in mud huts.'

Wigan is a town of the outskirts of Manchester that, like many towns in the North, was hit hard in the 1980s when the mining industry effectively closed down, with few jobs to replace those lost. It's also home to George Orwell's book about poverty in 1940s' Britain entitled 'The Road to Wigan Pier.' Despite modest growth, the economic crisis of 2008 pushed Wigan's employment right back to 1980s levels, with public sector jobs cut in a wave of government austerity.

Last Christmas Eve, back in Wigan, I witnessed a young man running from a nearby supermarket being chased by security guards. In his hands he was clutching a low grade frozen turkey, presumably for a family Christmas dinner the next day.

Oxfam has started to fund food banks in the UK for the first time. We're working with two partner agencies; the Trussell Trust which delivers emergency food parcels, and Fareshare, which works with food manufacturers to make sure that no 'good' food goes to waste, distributing surplus stock to almost 800 charities.

Oxfam doesn't, as a rule, give out food - preferring to promote freedom of choice and keep economies alive by giving people cash instead. Yet here we are today, packing cereal, tinned soup, and dried pasta into bags to give to people in the 6th richest economy in the world. Why?

Most people who come to emergency food banks are experiencing some sort of benefit delay. People on benefits usually have the lowest incomes with no savings to cover unforeseen circumstances, and even a slight delay in receiving benefit can mean they have no money to buy food for themselves or their children. Nearly one third of those applying to food banks do so for this reason.

However, there has been a recent change of clientele going to food banks. Food banks are starting to cater to people who can no longer afford to live. Food and fuel price rises, coupled with changes to welfare are pushing people already on the breadline over the edge. Low incomes and being in debt account for 15% of the people applying to food banks, with other reasons including homelessness, domestic violence, sickness, or the additional expenses of children at home during school holidays.

The situation is dire. The Trussell Trust revealed today that they fed more than 350,000 people in 2012-13, which is 100,000 more than they expected, and that they are opening three new food banks each week. At the same time, some councils across the UK are now considering replacing crisis loans with vouchers for food bank parcels. We think this is a very worrying route to go down. In fact, Oxfam's experience in food shortage situations around the world tells us that giving out cash, not emergency food parcels, is more effective, and also a far more dignified approach.

The cost of living is rising, and as incomes are reducing people are increasingly less able to pull themselves out of poverty. I saw this most recently myself when visiting a remote community in South Wales. Unemployment, low educational attainment and poor mental health are affecting a large proportion of the population. I met people suffering from depression, with no qualifications, battling for minimum wage jobs that would barely cover the cost of basic living (food and shelter). One man named Lee had recently quit a 'zero hours' contract with a local labouring agency. This meant he was technically employed, but with no guarantee of a regular wage. The work dried up and as a single father of two young boys, so Lee had to 'resign' from his position to pay for basic necessities for his family. By resigning from a job, even one that did not pay, Lee now has to wait six months before he can receive any welfare payments.

There is no denying that experiences like Lee's are pushing more and more people into hunger. I have met countless mothers who are skipping meals so their children can eat, or feeding them low-grade food with no nutritional value. Malnutrition is becoming a problem, not through lack of food but through poor quality food, which will pose substantial health risks in later life.

People aren't living in mud huts in Wigan. They're also not working down mine shafts with coal fumes blackening the air. But nevertheless, they are living in poverty. Much like George Orwell's book 'The Road to Wigan Pier' there are countless people without a decent enough income to live a healthy life with dignity. And it's not just Wigan; areas all across the county are affected by government spending cuts and changes to welfare. I recently spoke to a food bank manager in Kingston, an affluent area in the South of England, who is witnessing a huge hike in food bank recipients. This is due to changes in housing benefit that are making it impossible for many to pay their rent. It's not just those out of work who are affected. Over half the working age population in poverty lives in a household where at least one person works. But as Oxfam's Perfect Storm report showed this year, prices of food, fuel and housing are increasing, while incomes are stagnating or falling.

Oxfam firmly believes that in the sixth richest country in the world, it is an injustice that we have people who don't have enough to eat. Funding food banks is not a choice for us, but a necessity for those without food. We shall continue to campaign for fairer legislation for the poorest in our society, but at same time, we must care for their immediate needs.

Blog post written by Jo Harrison

Communication Officer, UK Poverty Programme

More by Jo Harrison