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Posted on 1st August 2023

Remarks delivered by Andrew Forsey to the Royal Society of Medicine, June 2023

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It’s a real privilege to be with you this afternoon, not least because of something I read in Michael Nelson’s write-up of the proceedings of a Low Income Project Team meeting, held at the Royal Society of Medicine, in 1996.

The Royal Society was described, in that document, as a venue that provided an appropriate neutral arena for frank and open discussion, on the way in which to take forward a co-ordinated national strategy on issues relating to food access, affordability, and deprivation. And today’s proceedings so far suggest this sentiment still holds firm.

I’ll begin my remarks – on the need for, and development of, food banks and other forms of community food provision – by sharing something that I read recently which summarises much more eloquently than I ever could, the backdrop to our time together today:

‘In the past 10 years, our perceptions of food banks have changed dramatically. First seen by policy makers and the general public as an emergency, short-term and caring response to what was supposed to be a time-limited hunger problem, they are now viewed, at least implicitly and often reluctantly, as one of the cornerstones of society’s anti-hunger and antipoverty strategy.

‘Although there is much talk about eliminating the need for them, concrete strategies to effect such an outcome remain elusive. Unfortunately, anti-poverty community agencies have also had difficulty articulating, given current realities, an evolutionary transition strategy that policy makers could find acceptable and take action on.’

That all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Well, I’m afraid that was written not during the current cost of living crisis in the UK, but 30 years ago in Toronto about the then situation in Canada. Moreover, just a month ago, one of Toronto’s biggest food banks tweeted:

‘We are in a crisis … food banks all across the city are at a breaking point. Toronto foodbanks are seeing 12,000+ new clients per month. This is a crisis. We’re calling upon the Ontario government to provide an emergency top-up to social assistance.’

And only last week, Food Banks Canada Tweeted:

‘Over the past several months, Food Banks Canada has been made increasingly aware of the desperate situation that many food banks and community agencies working on the frontline of the hunger crisis in Canada have been facing’, followed by a link to a page headed Emergency Funding Helps Food Banks.

The theme running through my remarks this afternoon, therefore, is that we must act now, through both policy and practice, if we in the UK are to avoid that wretched path of entrenching food banking and crisis food parcels on an industrial and colossal scale, a path that would see us in 10, 20, or even 30 years’ time repeating an annual if not quarterly or even monthly ritual of emergency appeals to prop up the prevailing food bank model.

Just to underline this point, I was delivering similar remarks at a symposium in Coventry last week, where upon leaving the train station this headline confronted me from the Coventry Telegraph on the newspaper stand: ‘Food bank crisis appeal as donations dwindle’.

Now, having begun on that note of horror, I’m going to try my best hereon in for the next 30 minutes or so, to strike a more positive note which dwells on the need and the opportunity to build in a pragmatic way on both recent precedent, and recent progress. That may sound strange – but bear with me.

Between Spring 2021 and 2022, so on the eve of the current cost-of-living crisis, there was a reduction, from 4% to 3%, in the proportion of people across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland reporting that they or someone else in their household had used a food bank in the previous 12 months. Among those who had used a food bank, a higher proportion did so only once, and a lower proportion did so on more than one occasion.

The lessons associated with that reduction, which can and should be applied now, I will return to in a moment. But for now, it’s worth registering that ever-rising numbers of people using food banks is not inevitable in the UK. It has been reversed before and can be reversed again.

In addition, I’ve noticed that whenever the Prime Minister is asked by BBC or Sky or any other interviewer about food banks, he almost always replies straight away that he wishes to see a reduction in the number of people using food banks, and ultimately for nobody to have to use one. So we have some recent experience and seemingly some political will on our side.

But with the notable exception of Scotland, I’ve not seen any strategic plan in place or even in development to end the need for food banks across the UK.

And that is why, later this month, a backbench bill will be presented to Parliament on Feeding Britain’s behalf which, if it were to pass through Commons and Lords, would require the Prime Minister to publish a strategy for eliminating the need for food banks by 2030.

That said, any strategy worth its salt would need to be fleshed out with detailed policies. And so in the remainder of my time I’m going to share some potential candidates, grouped under three themes of mending holes in the nutritional safety net, establishing a national minimum income below which nobody is allowed to fall, and engineering a major shift in the role, nature, and characteristics of community food provision.

First, looking at the nutritional safety net, there are currently 200,000 children across England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are missing out on their Healthy Start entitlement of at least £4.25 a week, toward fruit, veg, milk, or pulses.

And so on the 14th June a second backbench bill will be presented to Parliament on Feeding Britain’s behalf which, again if it passes through Commons and Lords, would automatically register all eligible children for their Healthy Start entitlement, by shifting the scheme from ‘opt in’ to ‘opt out’. In the meantime, we are working with a cluster of jobcentres to pilot a new way of promoting the scheme in their public facing offices.

Looking at the safety net for school-aged children, the best estimates suggest that a similar number – 200,000 in England alone – may be eligible but not receiving their free school meal entitlement.

And while work continues to persuade the Government to introduce automatic registration on a national basis, we at Feeding Britain will shortly be piloting with up to 20 local authorities a first step toward automatic registration, in compliance with existing laws, with the lessons hopefully shaping a wider national rollout in due course.

But even if full take-up were secured, we know there are children whose parents work in care homes, coffee shops, clothing factories, police stations, sorting offices, and schools, for example, with wages that are not high enough to lift the family out of poverty, but are deemed to be too high to qualify the children for free school meals – and the accompanying place at Holiday Activities and Food clubs. We would therefore recommend both the urgent review and revision of the eligibility criteria for free school meals, to ensure no child living in poverty is disqualified.

In a similar vein, the Holiday Activities and Food (or HAF) programme is an incredibly good one for the hundreds of thousands of children who access it across England, especially those under the age of 11, during Easter, Summer, and Christmas holidays. That programme owes its creation to one of our previous backbench bills that Frank Field presented six years ago, with cross-party support from 130 MPs at that time, which helped us force the Government’s hand to fill the holiday gap.

But with the next Government spending review now looming into view, we will be recommending not simply another multi-year settlement to extend the programme – as welcome as that would be – but additional funding to expand the programme to larger numbers of children and a greater number of days during the holiday periods. Professor Greta Defeyter has calculated that, in Birmingham, every £1 spent on HAF generated £11 in wider social benefits – including through the reduction in antisocial behaviour. So we hope that this recommendation will be a compelling one to the Treasury.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to share that alongside Greta and a brilliant team of young people from different parts of England, we are working with the Government to help tailor a ‘HAF Plus’ offer for 12-16 year-olds, which truly ensures the programme meets their needs and circumstances, and above all else extends to them the freedom, choice, and opportunities enjoyed by their classmates during the holidays. That in itself tells us something quite profound about the way in which community food provision can and should develop in the years ahead – but more on that later.  

Under the second theme, of household incomes, we are now, to state the obvious, long overdue the establishment, or re-establishment, of a national minimum below which nobody is allowed to fall.

Recent one-off boosts to household incomes, such as the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit and the more recent Cost of Living Payments, have successfully reduced at least some of the need for food banks. The former played an important role in that reduction I mentioned earlier, and the latter has been identified over this past month in particular, by Feeding Britain’s regional and local partners, as a welcome and significant development which has shortened the queues for help, or at least prevented their continued lengthening.

Yet if anything, this demonstrates that the basic level of support provided through the benefits system needs to be reviewed and revised in a much more systematic way if it is to guarantee, at all times, an adequate minimum income which prevents destitution and the accompanying need for food banks.

We at Feeding Britain have just recommended to the Work and Pensions Committee in the Commons, which is currently running an inquiry into benefit levels, that either the Government itself or an independent body in the image of the Low Pay Commission should begin publishing on an annual basis, their own calculations showing what level of support would be required to provide a ‘national minimum’, with the Secretary of State then having to justify to Parliament any differences that exist between those calculations and the actual level of support being offered.

Speaking of the Low Pay Commission, there must surely be a role for the Government in incentivising both the Living Wage and the Living Hours working practices throughout broader swathes of the economy.

There is an additional proposal that we have submitted to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, which would have prevented the introduction of policies such as deductions, sanctions, or wrongful denials of benefit, which drive the need for food banks; that is a legal duty upon the government of the day not to pursue policies which actively shove people into destitution. With pencils being sharpened to begin drafting election manifestoes, this is an idea will be pursuing with some vigour in the months ahead. And I would strongly recommend a recent paper by colleagues at Ulster University who delved deep into the status of destitution in law, and what a workable reform could look like on this front.  

That said, and in moving onto my third and central theme, we all know that the process of reform is a long, hard slog which could take many years to register meaningful change and address head on all those drivers of destitution – especially if our goal is not simply to eliminate the need for food banks, but to deliver food security for all.

Moreover, given the urgency of the situation right now, where people’s hunger necessitates their use of a food bank, my belief is that both the need for and process of reform cannot, must not, and does not remain limited to government alone. Justice demands that it can, must, and does extend deep into the heart of how we operate in the voluntary and community sector.

Indeed, we must pull every lever at our disposal to give people on the lowest incomes a sense of choice, dignity, and freedom that comes with access to affordable nutritious food, as well as the services which can accompany that food, at the heart of their community.

Part of my reason for dwelling on this point is that while last year saw the 80th anniversary of the well-known Beveridge Report on social security, this year marks the 75th anniversary of a lesser-known Beveridge Report on voluntary action. It was in this report that Beveridge remarked on the need for the collective firepower of both state and civil society, rather than simply one or the other, to be turned on the sources of injustice and misery in our country, so that people’s lives could truly become more manageable and indeed enjoyable, free of unnecessary suffering or hardship. 

So how has the civil society response to hunger and food insecurity developed over this past decade, and how might it do so throughout the next in that Berveridgean spirit?

Well, ten years ago, when from Frank Field’s office we launched the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger, many people of good will who had just set up food banks told the inquiry that they saw themselves as taking on a necessary role as that very last line of defence against hunger and destitution, mainly in providing temporary relief, care, and a loving arm around the shoulder of those in a critical situation who had fallen through the cracks in statutory services or suffered a personal crisis.

And it is this function that those staff and volunteers have always said to us that they wish to fulfil, in providing intensive help to a relatively small number of people during a short, albeit acute, period of hardship, after which they would be back on their feet.

What those food bank teams did not sign up for was a scenario which is on its way to becoming the norm in our society; a scenario which over a ten-year period has seen a gargantuan number of crisis food parcels being given on regular basis to a small army of people (both in and out of work) whose low incomes, bad fortune, or both, have left them constantly unable to buy their own food, and have placed them at risk of either becoming dependent on those crisis food parcels or skipping meals.

Those same food banks have remarked to us recently that, with dwindling donations of food and money now thrown into the mix, they just cannot bear the idea of carrying on down this path for another decade at least, with no end in sight.

So what of the alternative or additional approach being developed across the Feeding Britain network which, while by no means could ever be seen as a panacea or silver bullet, is nonetheless immediately within our grasp, and could at least take us beyond the sole and continued relief of acute hardship and suffering on an industrial scale, and toward a model which can both prevent those extended periods of hunger and severe food insecurity arising in the first place, as well as provide a stepping stone away from crisis food parcels for those who have been exposed to hunger?

What this approach tends to encompass is the gradual and careful introduction of contributory or membership-based schemes, through affordable food clubs such as pantries, larders, and social supermarkets, of which there are now 280 across the Feeding Britain network, with a collective membership of 50,000 households.

In return for a manageable financial contribution of between £5 and £10 per visit, families and individuals can save just enough money on a broad range of fresh, chilled or frozen, longlife, and household goods, often valued at between £15 and £20, that they are then able to keep their heads above water from week to week, and then hopefully month to month, while maintaining their independence as well as their ability to put decent meals on the table, all the while without having to fall back upon crisis food parcels.

This is particularly true when on-site services such as welfare rights, debt advice, and credit unions are immediately on hand to maximise incomes and get more money safely into people’s pockets – just as Janet Poppendeick noted of some of the more advanced food banks many years ago in the U.S., and as Greta noted from Newcastle this afternoon – and also when those services extend to the provision of activities and meals for children and their families during school holidays. So here we begin to see the outline of a year-round bulwark which protects people against the need to draw upon crisis food parcels.

And I’ll just give two examples of how crucial that wraparound support can be. In one food club where we have a welfare rights worker present, a 32 year old man who lives with his disabled partner and two dependent children was helped to claim a previously unclaimed Carer’s Allowance of £69.70 per week, and to claim a total of £1,160 from the household support scheme to help with fuel, clothing, and a replacement cooker at home.

That same advice worker helped a woman, who could not go back to work following an accident, to triple her income from £370 to £1100 a month by overturning incorrect decisions on her Universal Credit and disability benefit claims.

Moreover, in a number of food clubs, thanks to a scheme pioneered by Feeding Liverpool and which is spreading rapidly to other parts of the Feeding Britain network, there are now Healthy Start champions working with members to navigate the application process and get them signed up for Healthy Start, helping at the grassroots to combat the issue of low take-up I described earlier.

So while for the foreseeable future at least it looks as though food banks will continue to play a role in responding to crises with swiftness and compassion, many dozens of food banks within the Feeding Britain network have been reflecting in their own way on the comparisons that both Graham Riches and Michael Harrington drew in the early 1980s, from both Canada and the U.S., between the human experience of signing up for food club-type model, where one could pay a low cost to select from a range of goods as they would in a shop, and receive income maximisation support, as against the admission of defeat that came with receiving a crisis food parcel.

Those food banks in our network have reflected on and responded to this comparison by either converting into or adding on a food club. Every single one of them to have developed or evolved in this way has reported a drastic reduction, and in some cases total elimination, of the need for crisis food parcels, as well as a transformation in residents’ experiences of accessing the service. They are members rather than clients, they are coming to shop rather than be handed a crisis food parcel, and they access the service as a right by way of contribution. If a member does suffer an income shock, there is an element of redistribution within the food club to enable them to redeem a free shop or two, thereby avoiding the need to seek crisis food parcels from the food bank.

One of those food banks in West Yorkshire, which in February had been distributing 80 crisis food parcels to around 60 households per week, now sees those 60 households accessing instead a Friday food club, where they choose for themselves from a wide range of goods, and often stay behind to socialise and then through conversation begin receiving help with any financial issues that come to light. This has totally eliminated the need for crisis food parcels.

Moreover, with a £5 contribution covering the food, an additional £1 contribution goes into their newly opened credit union account after each visit. That change or evolution was triggered by the food bank’s realisation that no longer were they responding to one-off income shocks, but were instead becoming a permanent part of the scene for people on low and fixed incomes.

Elsewhere, a food bank in Buckinghamshire added on a mobile top-up shop through which people could contribute for their choice of items, partly out of the food bank team’s desire to achieve, in their words, ‘an alternative for people who were now fully dependent on crisis food parcels, so that step by step we could encourage independence and offer the dignity of choice’. Several months in, it has almost halved the long-term need for crisis food parcels.

In a similar vein, a food bank in the East Midlands developed a mobile food club bringing a wide range of affordable goods into rural villages where people were struggling. It now has 570 members on its books and in several villages has eliminated the need for crisis food parcels.

Another food bank in the North East of England chose to embrace the food club model because they wanted to introduce, in their words, ‘a shopping experience, a co-operative type model, where people feel they have input and value in the process’. Crucially, this model responds to the difficulties residents in the surrounding area had in getting to the bigger supermarkets where the biggest bargains were to be found.

In the words of one resident, ‘it means I can get food and other stuff at a good price, but it doesn’t feel like a handout because I’m paying. It’s like a local shop. I look forward to my visit’. That final point in particular touches upon the social element of a food club which can mitigate loneliness and isolation, and is among a series of positive outcomes associated with food clubs: they include a higher intake of fruit and vegetables, more cooking from scratch, lower levels of anxiety, improved health and wellbeing, and a stronger feeling of connectedness with the community – truly life-changing outcomes.

Other food banks, again with our help as well as that of councils or housing associations, have established formal referral processes or even incentives, to ensure that after a first crisis food parcel, people can then quickly be offered membership of their nearest food club, on terms that are acceptable and affordable to them – a vital first stepping stone away from crisis and a minimising of the risk of long-term dependence on crisis food parcels.

But looking beyond our network, we will shortly be releasing survey data which touches upon what could be the beginnings of a much broader shift being engineered throughout the UK. Over the past 12 months, the survey suggests that the same proportion of people have accessed a food club as have accessed a food bank, and in some regions the former group is now larger than the latter.

Within that group will be people I spoke with at a newly opened food club in Essex earlier this year. They lamented the fact that the local corner shop could charge what they liked, as they were the only show in town, that the bigger supermarkets were a long bus journey away, and that they would not admit defeat and take a crisis food parcel from a local food bank, even though they were struggling. But here in the food club they had access to high-quality varied produce, with which they could make proper meals, at a low cost, and which they could access on their doorstep with their mates and without stigma.

This sentiment has been particularly strong among those families in paid work who sign up for food club membership, and we are increasingly engaging with trade unions who are looking gently to embrace this model – just as they did in parts of the American mid-west in the early 80s.  

It was during that conversation in Essex that I made a note to read again Michael Nelson’s write-up of those Low Income Project Team proceedings in 1996, where a need was identified for, in their rather attractive term, ‘a social element in retailing’, as there were ‘large numbers of households being effectively deprived of an affordable and healthy food supply’, and ‘for low-income households, choice does not exist if they live in communities in which the only fresh fruit is 2 miles away by bus and costs £2 to get to.’

Now imagine the chill that went down my spine when, talking to our team in Glasgow two weeks ago, shortly after re-reading this passage, they told me that one of our food clubs was now well known on the estate as being the only place within a two-mile radius which made available leeks and other vegetables with which to make a soup.

But Nelson then went on to say, when looking at this challenge, ‘this begs the question of whether benefit levels are adequate. The answer is clearly, ‘No, they are not’. We must, therefore, provide an alternative model of food retailing which addresses the needs of the poorest 25% of households whose dietary requirements are not presently being met. These include households on low incomes, not just those receiving benefits’. He then went on to mention the specific requirement, ‘to develop alternative schemes for food provision where the market system is currently failing.’

Looking back over the past century and a half, it could be said that the closest we have come to meeting that challenge is through the growth and development of the co-operative movement, characterised by Pat Thane as providing relatively cheap, good quality foodstuffs or other essential consumer goods to members, and being a form of mutual aid with wider appeal.

However, as both Thane and GDH Cole identified, this movement didn’t successfully reach down to the bottom of the income distribution, or out into the poorest areas – with a brief and notable exception of the Co-operative Women’s Guild and its Sunderland People’s Store. It was largely limited to the skilled working and lower middle classes, and not really to groups of people who we are now disproportionately likely to see in food banks.

And it is that motivation, of extending the reach of co-operative principles much further down the income distribution, which helps to drive this broad shift from food bank to food club, and from lifeline to life-changing, through our network.

That said, if it is truly to deliver a dignified and high-quality service in all the areas it serves, much care and attention will need to be given to the supply of food for these initiatives, as this will be critical to their effectiveness. While to date there has been an emphasis on the redistribution of goods that have become over-abundant in retailers’ supply chains, over the past year at Feeding Britain we have begun reducing this quite significantly as a proportion of our overall stock – mainly through the direct purchasing and support from fruit and veg traders, farmers, growers, bakers, dairies, butchers, and wholesalers, at local and national levels, whereby we can guarantee people a more consistent range of high-quality goods each week – utilising the collective buying power of people on lower incomes to bring good food and wraparound services directly into the heart of their communities, and with the additional mobile element to cover the unique circumstances of rural areas.

Here we have the means to make life not just more affordable but also more manageable and enjoyable for people who would otherwise have been in a constant or chronic state of crisis and despair.

And so in reverting to those comments from Toronto of 30 years ago, I hope that the measures I’ve just outlined – a stronger nutritional safety net, a ‘national minimum’ to underpin household incomes, and a new form of community food provision built upon co-operation and reciprocity – might just nudge our country a little bit towards, in their words, that ‘evolutionary transition strategy’, which can see us reduce significantly the need for food banks and crisis food parcels in the years ahead. Thank you.