Can We Bank on the Big Society?

Several years ago, the idea that thousands of UK citizens would be dependent on food banks for their survival would have been almost inconceivable. Hunger is not something that is allowed to happen in Great Britain, right? However, in recent years, there has been a remarkable rise in the use of food banks in the UK, responding to a problem so great that some food banks are routinely donating their entire stockpile. Quite how the coalition government has allowed the explosion of non fulfilment of basic needs in one of the wealthiest countries in the world begs disbelief.

Image courtesy of Walmart © 2009, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Walmart © 2009, some rights reserved

Trussell Trust manages almost 400 food banks across the country, has served 346,992 people in just one year, and is expanding its services every week due to the ballooning demand.[1] The picture of need is even greater considering the number of independent food banks continuing to be set up.  Food banks are not just another dimension of the ‘Benefits Britain’ stereotype. They are a crucial lifeline for those who, for a variety of reasons, struggle day in day out just to put food on the table. The British press often draws attention to anecdotes of parents going hungry at dinnertime so that their children can have the only morsels of food they can afford.  The stories told often depict endless lines of mothers waiting for their ration of the limited tinned produce donated by kindhearted individuals. Indeed, in many cases, this is the reality faced by food banks and their clients. However, much food poverty is hidden behind closed doors, in areas where food banks have not been set up, or where people are unaware of the help available, or even too proud to ask for help. Has Britain reneged on its implicit commitment to care for and feed its population? Is the rise in food banks a symptom of the slow but sure death of the Welfare State?

It is true there has been a scaling back of the welfare state, with George Osbourne’s reforms and austerity measures hitting hard. Real wages have not risen in line with the cost of living, and employers continue to cut back, resulting in redundancies and heavily competitive job vacancies. Rising global food prices have also been cited as an explanatory factor in the increase in food poverty. Given the global implications of rising food prices and austerity measures, Britain is not the only country struggling to feed its population.  The world’s most destitute countries are well aware of the difficulties and consequences of a starving population and inadequate social security measures. Hunger hits employment, healthcare, education and overall physical and emotional wellbeing of the population, and it hits hard. Of course, the situation in much of the developing world when compared to that in the UK is far more urgent, particularly when coupled with domestic conflict, drought, corruption and countless other factors. The issue of food insecurity is so desperate in the Sahel region of Africa that the UN has declared a 3-year humanitarian response plan to assist the 20 million at risk of starvation in the midst of violence and displacement.[2]

Despite such abject global poverty, the British government still has an obligation to provide for the material and health needs of its population. However, the rise of food banks in the UK has almost been turned into a political chess piece, used at will by those either condemning or supporting the coalition’s policies. Food banks have in large part been set up and run by members of civil society, such as faith groups and charities. You can almost imagine David Cameron looking on with glee at this outstanding mobilisation of the Big Society. People from all walks of life coming together; ready to tackle the challenges of an unavoidable economic recession, all in it together. No doubt most of the British population would find this assessment of the state of British society more than a little hard to swallow. There is a wide perception of there being a direct correlation between the increase in the need for food banks and the conservative policies of the coalition that have hit the poor the hardest. The rise of food banks has been a particularly common bullet in the shooting range of political criticism recently. Senior members of the Church of England have publicly denounced the government’s reliance and justification of food banks, with Archbishop of York John Sentamu criticising the rise of food banks as a symptom of an increasingly polarised society and economy, and in particular the government’s welfare reforms.[3]

Yet, the need for food banks is real, and such important facilities should not simply be used as political pawns. Instead of the now-derided concept of the Big Society, we can look at food banks as grassroots responses to national and global problems. In the failure of national solutions, local ones spring up. St Andrews-based food bank, Storehouse, is a local example of the need and generosity that is on our doorstep. The Foreign Affairs Review spoke to Rebecca Weir, Storehouse Manager, who drew attention to the wide variety of factors that might leave someone in need of support from Storehouse. However, she recognised that benefit changes, increases in the cost of living and stagnant wages have increasingly been important factors, citing a Scottish Government report that shows by April-June 2013, benefit problems accounted for 52% of food bank referrals, up  10% in 2011/2012.[4] “In Storehouse we were providing 30-40 food bags a month in the first half of 2013.  By the end of 2013 that had increased to over 100 a month, and sadly it shows no sign of slowing down.  We are delighted that because of the generosity and compassion of local people, we have been able to keep up with demand so far.  But we need more donations all the time just to meet the most basic of needs of our local community when they hit a crisis point.”

The legacy of the coalition government is in grave danger of being tainted by policies that have proved to be exclusionary and divisive. Not only has Britain become more hungry, the gap between rich and poor has widened, higher education has become more expensive and thus exclusive, and communities have been left alone in the face of extensive flooding that was inadequately prepared for and the consequences barely dealt with. The future of the British political landscape is decided on issues such as these, issues that affect the struggling parent, the unemployed graduate and the hungry child. The fact that several charities have claimed that the rise of food poverty in the UK may represent a failure to meet international human rights obligations, in particular its commitment to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, demonstrates just how worrying this growing trend is.[5]

For more information on Storehouse, please visit:

One Reply to “Can We Bank on the Big Society?”

Leave a Reply