Last year Trussell Trust foodbanks provided emergency food parcels for 2.1 million people, and this year the number will be higher. Even that tells only part of the story, as Trussell represents around half of the foodbanks in the UK. In the space of a decade, foodbanks have gone from virtually unknown in the UK to a cornerstone of many communities.
In 2010, when Trussell was supplying less than 40,000 food parcels, most people didn’t even know what a foodbank was. Foodbank numbers exploded in the early 2010s, driven by large increases in the number of families unable to make ends meet and local people responding to that immediate need. Churches were central to the foodbank movement, and we saw huge drive and enthusiasm amongst the churches who were starting up and supporting foodbanks.
It was and is right that churches respond to need. Had people not put their shoulder to the wheel creating foodbanks, millions more would have been pushed down further into poverty and destitution. However, that need continues to grow. Destitution levels in the UK soared past 1.5 million in 2015 to 2.5 million prior to the pandemic. It is incontrovertible that there is a growing problem with deep poverty and hunger in the UK, and that foodbanks are not the solution.
Responding to the cost-of-living crisis
This winter we are facing a huge cost of living crisis. Food insecurity is rapidly increasing with over half of all adults receiving Universal Credit skipping meals to make ends meet each month. That was before the latest energy price rise, which is being felt by most families, but is utterly unaffordable to those who were already just making ends meet.
The church alongside other community and civil society groups has mobilised to start up literally thousands of warm banks. The JPIT denominations, working with others through the ChurchWorks Commission, are offering resources to support those setting up warm banks through the “Warm Welcome” initiative. The hope is that these are more than safe, free warm spaces for people to spend time, but places where people can contribute and communities can flourish.
We cannot let people shiver their way through the winter – and we are setting up a warm bank in my church because that is a key part of our Christian calling. But it is abundantly clear that a warm bank is no more a solution to fuel poverty than a foodbank is a solution to food poverty.
We cannot therefore shy away from our calling to act for justice. It is an appalling fact that in a very wealthy nation we distribute our resources so unjustly that families cannot stay warm and fed. Opening a warm bank warm space should not make us feel better about that – indeed it should make us even more appalled and determined to change it.
Ending the need for foodbanks (and warm banks)
The Trussell Trust’s strapline is now “Ending the Need for Foodbanks”. Foodbanks have become so embedded in society that that journey will take many years. In a decade’s time we will have failed our communities if there needs to be a charity whose strapline is “Ending the Need for Warm Banks”.
The risk in meeting need is that as time goes by, the rest of society is allowed the comfortable pretence that the underlying problem has been solved. In Canada, USA and Germany, foodbanks moved from being a temporary response to a temporary problem to being the permanent response to a permanent problem.
If we allow wider society and the politicians we elect to think that the problem is being solved by warm banks, churches will receive much praise and probably funding but we will also quickly slip into being complicit in the injustice.
Change is necessary and possible
We have produced a number of briefings looking at the cost-of-living crisis and the decade long rise in destitution, so I won’t repeat that analysis here. A key point that is obvious but often goes unsaid is that it is preposterous to suggest that the past decade has seen millions of people somehow make less effort or worse choices when trying to make a living or make family budgets work. If common sense does make you reject that proposition, then data on increased employment patterns and more frugal spending choices should.
The country became wealthier per-person, but millions were dragged into destitution. The clear answer to that conundrum, articulated by a UN special rapporteur in 2019, is that policy choices, made mainly by government, but also by investors and industry, changed how resources were distributed.
That conclusion is both sobering and hopeful, because it means that the rise of poverty and the foodbanks and warm banks it spawns, is not inevitable. We can make different choices.
Every warm bank should be a hotbed of activism
A colleague told me she thought “every warm bank should be a hotbed of activism”. For some this will be second nature, while for others this will be a frightening idea. For me every warm bank should make every guest, volunteer, and contributor as comfortable as possible, while making every community leader, decision maker and politician as uncomfortable as possible that there could ever be a need for warm banks.