Walking the breadline: tackling the scandal of food poverty in Britain

Posted by Niall Cooper National Coordinator at Church Action on Poverty

30th May 2013

The use of foodbanks in the UK is on the rise, and over half a million people are now thought to be reliant on emergency food aid. Today, Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam are launching Walking the Breadline, a new briefing paper that highlights the rise in food poverty on our doorstep. Niall Cooper, Chief Executive of Church Action on Poverty, explains why we are calling on the government to act now.

The Enough Food for All IF campaign was launched earlier this year, in response to the growing numbers of people globally who are experiencing hunger, but the shocking reality is that upwards of half a million people are also now reliant on food handouts across the UK.

But behind these large numbers are people, people who are struggling to get by on not very much. People like Stephen Gordon. Stephen, is from North Manchester and is desperate to find work and turn his life around after spending time in prison. But when his benefits were stopped due to an administrative error in January, he was left destitute and has lost almost two stone in weight.

Walk the Breadline briefing paper download

"How am I supposed to live? I didn't do anything wrong", Stephen says. " I went without food for days. One day I might borrow a couple of quid and get some pot noodles, and then not eat for a day or two. Maybe every day or two I'd get a bag of chips. I felt really low: suicidal, depressed. I just thought that no-one was helping or caring."

Stephen's is not an isolated experience. Every day, increasing numbers of people are going to bed hungry across the UK. Not because we are a poor country - we're not. Not because there is not enough food for everyone - there is. It's unfair, it's unjust - and it's totally preventable.   

A national disgrace

The rise in food poverty undermines the UK's commitment to ensuring that all its citizens have access to food - one of the most basic of all human rights.

The Trussell Trust has seen the numbers at their foodbanks in the past 12 months treble to a staggering 350,000 people.

Well in excess of half a million people are turning to food aid (such as that provided by food banks), and this number is likely to escalate further over the coming months. The Trussell Trust alone has seen a trebling in the numbers at their foodbanks in the past 12 months to a staggering 350,000 people.

The growth in food aid demonstrates that the welfare safety net is failing in its basic duty to ensure that families have sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. Foodbanks are worthy attempts at short term mitigation. They are vital to those who turn to them. But foodbanks cannot on their own address the underlying causes of the growth of food poverty.

Up to half of all people turning to food banks are doing so as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed, reduced, or withdrawn altogether. According to research by the Trussell Trust and Citizens Advice, changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using foodbanks; these include changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, jobseeker's allowance sanctions and sickness benefit reassessments.

The increase in the number of people using food banks is also driven by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income and rising food and fuel prices. The National Minimum Wage and benefits levels need to rise in line with inflation, in order to ensure that families retain the ability to live with dignity and to afford to adequately feed, clothe and heat themselves.

Benefit cuts and welfare reform will make it worse

There is a real risk that the recent benefit cuts will lead to even larger numbers being forced to seek food aid,and that foodbanks will not have the capacity to cope with the demand. In fact, they are already struggling.

It is unacceptable that whilst thousands are being forced to turn to foodbanks to feed themselves, wealthy individuals and corporations continue to dodge their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes.

That's why Church Action on Poverty, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust are calling for an urgent Parliamentary Inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee into the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions; welfare reform changes and the dramatic growth in food poverty across the UK.

At the same time, we're also calling on the Prime Minister to make tackling tax dodging an urgent priority, by promoting robust and coordinated international action at the forthcoming G8 meeting in Northern Ireland - to reduce the need for further cuts in benefits, including further caps at below-inflation levels in future.

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Blog post written by Niall Cooper

National Coordinator at Church Action on Poverty

More by Niall Cooper