Food banks and meal projects play a vital, life-saving role, and volunteers who run them deserve huge credit. While receiving free food might sound attractive, this isn’t really the case. Many users report feeling embarrassed about not being able to provide for their families and use food banks only as a last resort.
It can take a considerable time for someone to seek help and many food banks require a referral. By the time someone visits one, they have probably endured many episodes of hunger.
I know about this because the food partnership I work for takes calls through the week from people who haven’t eaten for days and have been going round in circles trying to find help. The fact that we provide suicide prevention training for our enquiries team is telling.
Recent research conducted by academics and food organisations in Adur and Worthing revealed the extent of the trauma experienced by users of food banks. As well as the physical pain and fatigue of hunger, they found feelings of “shame and humiliation about their situation, guilt about their ability to feed their family and anxiety about whether they deserve to receive support”.
Food bank use stigmatised
The researchers refer to ‘hunger trauma’. They say: “Food bank use has become so stigmatised that people will often choose to skip meals and eat food that’s out of date, rather than seek food support. People living in poverty are tortured by the fear of shame and not meeting others’ expectations. The accompanying real and imagined social rejection can feed into the trauma of hunger.”
The findings were presented by Dr Carl Walker at the recent Lewes District Food Summit. Food banks are now working to develop a set of principles to create a more dignified approach to food aid. Steps are already being taken across Sussex: for example, providing more choice over food, opening a café to encourage socialising and organising mental health training for volunteers.
In tandem with this work, Lewes District Food Partnership has been listening to local people to understand what it’s really like to live through the cost of living crisis. People are being invited to take part in a series of workshops called Feeling the Pinch. It is an opportunity to address misconceptions around hunger and poverty. I asked Stef Lake, Community Development and Health Programme Manager, about this work and what she’s learned from it.
“What was clear,” she told me, “is the extent to which people feel ostracised from society and the feeling of helplessness. They are doing all they can to improve their situation, but no change is happening.”
The term ‘grinding poverty’ seems pertinent here. “Most food bank users are unpaid carers in some capacity, have disabilities or long-term health issues. When you have multiple complex needs, are struggling with poor housing, mental health, poor nutrition, you can’t meal-plan, you can’t make use of a donated slow cooker, a few tips can’t help.”
The type of support needed is “profound”, she says, and is lacking in our health, social care and local authority services, leaving the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces.
Feeling judged for a rare treat
What’s also clear is that people internalise their shame and are acutely aware of how others may judge them, often regulating themselves to fit into society’s notions of the ‘deserving poor’. This is highlighted in a particular story from a food bank user buying themselves a hot chocolate in Costa, a rare treat and act of self-care. They bumped into one of the food bank workers and instantly felt judged for wasting money.
Surplus fresh, nutritionally balanced food is becoming increasingly difficult to source from supermarkets. It comes with a short shelf life, and not all food banks have the means to store it. The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) reports one food bank user as saying: “I feel we’re getting all the food that everyone else couldn’t eat that’s left over.”
Is this the best we can do as the sixth richest country in the world, where there are more food banks than outlets of the fast-food chain McDonald’s?
To ensure people’s stories are heard by decision-makers, the findings from ‘Feeling the Pinch’ were fed back to agencies, policymakers and other stakeholders at a public hearing in Lewes on 27 June. The hearing revealed the importance of consulting with people before designing and implementing a policy and also the challenges of navigating the benefits system.
Cash-first approach to poverty?
As one local councillor commented: “It’s become so complicated that you need a degree to advise someone on what they are entitled to.” People often feel that they are met with disbelief and scepticism and that they constantly have to prove themselves.
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending the Need for Food Banks conducted a landmark inquiry into tackling the growing need for food banks across the UK. Among their recommendations was a cash-first approach, meaning people in financial crisis are provided with money to buy their own essentials. Cash provides choice and allows people to meet their needs. It’s the most dignified and effective form of support.
But some, like Stef, go further and advocate for a universal basic income so no one has to go without the basics. What is clear is that food bank use is a systemic failure, and no one should ever feel ashamed or demonised for needing one.
FACTS ON FOOD BANKS
- More than 9 million adults in the UK are unable to feed themselves, and the number of children living with food insecurity doubled in the past year to 3.7 million, according to The Food Foundation.
- The Trussell Trust network alone reported giving out almost 3 million emergency food parcels in the last year, the most they’ve ever distributed and a 37 per cent increase from the previous year.
- One in five people using Trussell Trust food banks are working but unable to afford the essentials.