Niall Cooper: Look forward in hunger
The Enough Food for All IF campaign was launched earlier this year in response to the growing numbers of people in the world who are experiencing hunger; but the shocking reality is that hundreds of thousands of people are also now reliant on food handouts in the UK.
Stephen Gordon has done everything he can to get his life back on track since leaving prison, but when his benefits were cut for two months due to a mix-up, he had to borrow money just to eat. Stephen, who is 32, from North Manchester 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 he has lost almost two stone in weight.
“How am I supposed to live?” Stephen asks. “I didn’t do anything wrong. 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. The explosion in food poverty and the use of foodbanks is a national disgrace, and undermines the UK’s commitment to ensuring that all its citizens have access to food – one of the most basic of all human rights.
Well in excess of half a million people are now reliant on food aid, 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 350,000 people.
As Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has written: “A decade of national debt risks being followed by a decade of destitution. Foodbanks open across the country, teachers report children coming to school hungry; advice services and local authorities prepare for the risks attached to welfare reform. There is evidence of a rising number of people sleeping rough, and destitution is reported with increasing frequency.”
The growth in food aid demonstrates that the welfare 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, but cannot on their own address the underlying causes of the growth of food poverty.
Up to half of all people turning to foodbanks 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 foodbanks 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.
In the words of a Citizens Advice Bureau client who submitted evidence to the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission last year: “My depression has worsened considerably, and the reduced amount I have to spend on food is affecting my diabetes and blood pressure. I also have more frequent panic attacks when thinking about our finances.”
There is a real risk that the benefit cuts and the new universal credit 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.
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, this month, Church Action on Poverty, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust are calling on the work and pensions select committee to conduct an urgent inquiry into the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions; welfare reform changes and the dramatic growth in food poverty across the UK.
You can add your own voice to the call at www.church-poverty.org.uk.
Niall Cooper is director of Church Action on Poverty and convenor of the Inner Manchester Mission Network of the United Reformed Church
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of Reform.
Read more articles by Niall Cooper