Mubin finds out what’s driving the increased need for food banks and how we can reduce the need for them with Emma Revie. 


Full transcript

Mubin: Welcome to the Financial Fairness podcast, with me Mubin Haq

Today we’re talking about food banks and how we could end the need for them. 

Providing food to those in need has been with us for centuries. In medieval times, many towns and villages had a ‘dole table’ on which food and money was provided to those in need. Soup kitchens sprung up in the during the 19th and early 20th centuries and more recently we’ve seen the development of food banks, which saw huge growth in the USA during the 1980s.  

Today we’re here at the Trussell Trust and I’m joined by its Chief Executive, Emma Revie.

Trussell support a nationwide network of foodbanks and last year they handed out 2.5 million food parcels. Emma, really pleased to have you here.

Could you just tell me a bit about food banks? Because I've actually not been in one. And I'm guessing most people listening to this have not been in the food bank either. So, tell me about how many there are and what it’s like? 

Emma: There are just over 1300 foodbanks in our network, but there are lots of other independent foodbanks that aren’t part of Trussell. Our foodbanks offer three days of emergency food. So somebody will be referred to us probably from either their GP or from maybe local Citizens Advice or from the Local Authorities, when they've been found to not have enough money to be able to afford food. For a lot of people, it's really difficult to make that decision to go and ask for emergency food, so coming over the threshold of a food bank - and they're normally in church buildings or local community centres right in the heart of the community - but coming in feels like a big deal. And so you're like enveloped by our volunteers and welcomed, you have a cup of tea, space to sit and have a chat, and the three days of emergency food is about 10 meals for everyone in the household. Long life foods, so you get some cereal, some UHT milk, tinned meat, veg, biscuits, maybe some crisps, and we've got pasta, rice, staples, and then often at food banks, there’s toiletries, that you would get a standard in a food parcel, but also fresh fruit and veg, if we've got it available

Mubin: You mean like a lettuce? 

Emma: Yes, you can get lettuce

Mubin: They last quite a long time don’t they

Emma:  I see what you're saying. So yes, we would have lettuces that last for a few days longer than people's careers. And we would also offer bread, maybe sometimes. But our standard pack is a long life pack for 10 days. 

Mubin: And my understanding is that there’s a limit to how many times people can come – this isn’t something you can come to on a regular basis. Is that right?

Emma: People often think that we limit access. Actually, the important part of our model is we work with referral organisations. So we don't think emergency food is the answer. If you can't afford to cover your bills to keep a roof above your head, to keep your heating on - an emergency food parcel is at best a sticking plaster. We work through referrals. So if the Citizens Advice refer you in, we need to know that the Citizen Advice is continuing to work with somebody to provide support. So what we say to our referral partners, is, you can't just keep referring somebody and not be doing anything to support them.

However, we know that there are people potentially with no recourse to public funds, people who've got all of their income maximised and are still unable to cover the essentials, that have to be referred quite a few more times, then like three or four times in six months. And in those situations, then we're really happy to support somebody, it's more about the quality of the wraparound support from referral partners than, than questioning whether somebody might need it more. 

On average, somebody will come to a food bank about 2.7 times in a six month period. So it isn't about people coming lots of times many, many people come just once. But for some people, they have no recourse to any other support, might have to come more frequently. 

Mubin: So it depends on the need really and the further support that these referral agencies are providing. Can you just tell me about who is coming? You talk about people with no recourse to public funds, who are the individuals, families coming along to the foodbanks?

Emma: We did some research into the state of hunger in the UK - over three years, longitudinal study with Heriot Watt University - just looking at what was driving Food Bank use, and what we know is that anyone who's coming to food bank, so 95% of people coming to food banks are experiencing destitution. So their income is so low that they're unable to stay warm, stay fed, stay housed. And so the average household income of somebody at a food bank is just £57 a week after housing costs so very, very low levels of income.

Mubin: That’s £57 a week

Emma: £57 pounds a week for everything else other than their housing costs. 

Mubin: That's, I mean – that’s real bread line

Emma: It's very, very low levels of income. And we know that for 86% of people coming to food banks, their primary source of income is Social Security. Benefits are just simply too low for people to be able to afford food. But there are certain groups of people who are significantly over represented at food banks. 62% of people coming to food banks have a disability or an illness that affects their daily lives, which is like three times the representation of disabled people within the working age population. 18% of people coming are single parents, again, twice the number of single parents in the working age population. So there are certain things, for example, maybe not being able to work more hours or work at all, through caring responsibilities, through having a disability or ill health, that make you much more likely to have to come to a food bank. 

Mubin: And as you’ve said, there’s people actually in work who are coming to foodbanks. There was that case about nurses being pushed into using foodbanks because their salaries weren’t high enough  - is that what you’re seeing too? 

Emma: We are, we're definitely seeing an increase in the number of people coming to food banks who are in work, we are being approached more and more by NHS Trusts, about how they can support their staff who are struggling to make ends meet. I had a phone call from a frontline care organisation the other day, who was saying that they had set up a food bank for their staff. They were trying to pay as well as they could, that resource had run out - where staff had donated food for other staff and it had run out. What more could they do to support their frontline staff. People are really struggling at the moment. And food banks are looking at how they can open for longer so they can be available for people after work to be able to come.

Mubin: Across the country, I'm presuming not just urban centres?

Emma: No, we're seeing this across the board. We're seeing winter levels of people coming to food banks in the summer, and we look towards the winter with real fear and trepidation for people. And that increase in the number of people coming to food banks means there are so many more people who've never had to come to a food bank before coming through our doors at the moment.

Mubin: Stepping back from this current crisis. And going back to during austerity, because when you first started back in the - was it the late 90s? 

Emma: Early 2000s. 

Mubin:. And you were running, I think back in 2004, about two food banks. And now it's - what 1300, 1400 within the network? What's actually led to that growth, we'll come on to this current cost of living crisis. But what led to that growth in between?
Emma: The huge increase in our network really came between 2011 and 2014. After austerity kicked in, set up by local people, seeing local people in their communities just unable to make ends meet, and responding by setting up a food bank. And one of our food banks was telling me last week, that back then, so it was 13 years ago, she was setting up the food bank, and she put in broadband. And they said look, we'll give you a five year contract, she said I'm not gonna be here in five years - I'm gonna be here 18 months, two years max. And she's still having to run that foodbank now. People set it up as a kind of emergency provision as austerity bit. And actually, the footprint of our network hasn't really changed much in the last five years. So there are not more foodbanks. But over that time, we've seen an 82% increase in needs, year on year in the number of people - so it's not the size of the footprint that's changed, it's the depth of that. And our modelling shows that the increase in need has not been about access, because that's quite a common question - there’s just more food banks, people know about food banks, it’s in the psyche of people, therefore they're coming, that it's about the underlying needs. And if the food bank were not there, that needs would be unmet.

Mubin: So, austerity, and by that do you mean reductions in other forms of public support? Reductions in Social Security? Stagnant wages? 

Emma: It's a significant reduction in the value of social security over that time, also, the implementation of punitive measures like sanctions and deductions, from benefits. So we saw a huge increase in the number of people coming to food banks as Universal Credit was rolled out, because of the five week wait, or then six week wait for Universal Credit that you had. If somebody lost their job and moved on to benefits, they were waiting six weeks. But then sanctions were applied, and people are going months, potentially without receiving any income,  that caused a surge. But also changes like the two child limits, the cap on the amount of benefits. I think the reductions to the value of benefits over the last 10 years has significantly driven Food Bank use. Compared with the early 80s, when benefits were about 25%, 30% of the average wage, and now it's dropped to like 15%. So people are, are living off very little money, with the idea being they come on to benefits and they move very quickly off in incentivization to get back into work. But for people who can't work, people who cannot work more hours, it's insufficient to live off of in many instances. 

Mubin: What was the situation like during the pandemic? That did hit a number of people quite hard but, it was interesting in our research, we found that a lot of people were protected as well.

Emma: What we saw was the last two weeks of March an 84% increase, because overnight, particularly people who were self employed or who were waiting for shifts that week, their income just disappeared. As furlough was announced, as you saw the self employed support being put in place, that provided a huge protective factor. It would have been a much higher number of people having to come to food banks, if that were not the case. But we did see increases where people couldn't get to work. And the difference between being held by furlough, and moving on to benefits was extraordinary. So furlough really held you in keeping roughly 80/90% of your money. Whereas if you go onto benefits, you're really getting between 20 to 30% of what you might have been earning before. And for families adjusting to that massive drop in income, that was significant. So more people experienced for the first time the protection Social Security gives which is, which is, not very much in terms of value of income. 

Mubin:  So what you're saying is that when the pandemic started, people losing their shifts, and you saw a massive increase in use and then when we saw this really quite generous form of support. You saw that peak reduced. 

Emma: Yeah, so figures still remained very high. But I think those packages that came in started to hold people and prevented it from being much, much worse and I would imagine, overwhelming for the system. But yes, so I think the £20 uplift Universal Credit our research shows provided a protective factor, its loss led to an increase in the number of people coming to food banks again

Mubin: So, you saw that - straight away?

Emma: Straight away.

Mubin: What kind of increase did you see? 

Emma: If you look at our figures over that period of time, we saw an immediate uptick of about 10%, in the number of people coming food banks, but it was more what our data had shown us in advance, which was people saying what the loss of that 20 pound uplift would mean for them in terms of the amount of time they would have to not access food, how many times they'll have to skip meals. So seeing the increase in the number coming into food banks, says something about food insecurity, but not everything. Because for some people, they’ll be in a period where they’re just skipping meals to, to make ends meet in the loss of that income. we asked people on Universal Credit, what their experiences were at the moment and 40% of people said they were skipping meals, or going whole days without food. Now, 21% said they couldn't heat food. And so that's post the cut to Universal Credit. So it's definitely a high number of people on Universal Credit are struggling to afford food.

Mubin: And what's happening now we've seen a cost of living crisis by double digit inflation, I'm guessing you've got more and more demand. And yet you possibly have got this problem, that donations are going down because people are struggling themselves and can't afford to give, is that what's happening?

Emma: We’ve seen a huge increase in need. We’ve got about  46% increase across August and September, September higher than August, as well. So the direction of travel is that, need is increasing. When you look at our food donations, this year over the previous year, they're slightly up. The generosity of the general public, in terms of food donations is like - they're giving, but they're giving to meet a need that was last year's need. And when you've got such a steep increase in need, that gap is just opening. 

So normally, at this point in the year, our food banks would gather in quite a lot of food over harvest, going into that period, a lot of our food supplies come in. And so if you looked in food banks, you will see quite a lot of food, because it carries them into the early part of next year. That’s not what we’re seeing. Food is just coming in and going out. And so at the moment, we're struggling to meet need in terms of our food supply, which is also really worrying about what that will mean going forward. So more and more food banks at the moment are having to purchase food. And that's something we're really uncomfortable with. 

Mubin: I was interested in how food banks really started off and they started back in the late 60s. And they really were massive in the 1980s in the USA. But our growth really didn’t happen until 2000s and austerity. Why do you think we didn't have a similar reaction in the 1980s to the USA and the growth of food banks then? What was different about the situation?

Emma: I don't know, other than with our social security system, I think potentially there was more protection being provided at that time. I do wonder - like our network has grown out of church groups often coming together in an area to provide a response. I think often church and Christian and other faith groups are often at the forefront of responding to their communities. And I imagine they were doing similarly during the 80s. 

My worry always is, that as we hit a crisis, people look to us. And the government might look to us as a network to step in, and provide support, and whether that - my fear is always that that causes other responses not to step in.

Mubin: Yeah, I mean, there'd be some who might say, food banks undermine the welfare state. They provide an alternative safety net. What's your views on that? 

Emma: I agree. It's really hard. And I think if you ask any of our food bank, staff and volunteers, they would agree. They don't want to be there. It's not right. And as we go into this, I never thought I'd be in a situation where I'd be appealing during an emergency appeal to help our food banks keep going. People need to have enough money to be able to afford essentials like food, and heating, and accommodation, like those essentials that we all take for granted. And I, I know, our foodbanks will step in, however, because, its this infinity loop that runs between compassion and justice. If somebody's in front of you, and they're really struggling, it's our nature, to show compassion and to want to do everything – and our food bank staff and volunteers do everything in their power to help that person in front of them. As that loops through justice, so you need to call out what is driving that. State that that is not right, and to call for what needs to change. But that doesn't mean you don't stop showing compassion in the meantime. So our vision is for UK without the need for banks, we shouldn't be mass distributing food aid as a response to people being in financial crisis. It's, it's wrong. But we gotta keep going. And so it's really, it's really uncomfortable. 

Mubin: Yeh, I definitely get that feeling from you. And I think actually, Trussell does an amazing job at highlighting the systemic problems there are, rather than just doing the charitable bit, it's doing that policy edged work, which is saying we shouldn't be here, which is quite unique in some ways.

So we're talking a bit about solutions, and what could reduce the need for foodbanks -  I've got a feeling what you’re going to say in relation to this, but what might some of the possible solutions be?

Emma: It comes down to ensuring that Social Security is enough to hold people out of destitution. We know that 95% of people going to the banks are experiencing destitution. Our social security system should be guaranteeing that you can afford the essentials. That's what we need as a baseline. We need to look at groups of people who are disproportionately affected by destitution, who are over represented in food banks. So people with disabilities that prevent them working more hours or working at all; people with caring responsibilities, and we need to be ensuring that as a result of having a disability or having a caring responsibility that you’re not forced into destitution. So, it's about sufficiency and targeting of Social Security, particularly to people who have additional costs, and how do we ensure that those are accounted for within our social security system. We see that mental health is hugely present in people who are coming to banks, the stress of not having enough money to buy food, causes mental ill health, but also mental ill health can lead to people not being able to work and coming to food banks. So it needs to be as communities, we come together and we create spaces.

Those spaces shouldn't be mass distributing food aid in our country, we have better ways of, of doing that. But I think fundamentally a sufficiency of social security, but also local welfare assistance. We know if your fridge breaks, and you've just got enough money you're making, you're making ends meet. But there's a crisis point A cash grant or cash injection or crisis injection can prevent you having to go and take out a loan from somewhere at a terrible interest rate to cover repairing your fridge. 

Local authorities used to have the discretion and enough money to be able to target that money at their local citizens who they knew needed that support – it’s just gone. Or it's much diminished, the statutory entitlement to it's gone, it's underfunded. And we've had the Household Support Fund, which has been great, £1.5 billion gone into the Household Support Fund - but in short bursts, with no guarantee of it extending, so local authorities unable to put in place the structures to target that funding at the right people. So I would say an investment in social security, an investment in local welfare assistance. So instead of offering people an emergency food parcel, which just sorts some meals, we can give them enough money to get through the crisis.

Mubin: And we did used to have something called the Social Fund to helped those emergency periods, much more generous grants. We've seen local welfare assistance as you say, particularly in England is just completely fragmented. But in the devolved nations, they do have a more centralised form of support. So, in particular, in Scotland, the Scottish Welfare Fund. Do you see much difference up in Scotland in relation to food bank use there, and the sort of level of need as a result? 

Emma: So we do, we're doing some research at the moment to draw a line between that,  particularly to understand the impact of the Scottish welfare fund and in Wales as well, where you have that, that cash first initiatives, we're starting some to be involved in some cash first pilots in Scotland, where we ensure that as a first line of response, it's cash that people get linked in with the Scottish welfare fund. But definitely, it's the better response, the sufficiency of it, some of the other prevailing issues that are affecting people in Scotland and Wales. It's hard to pull out exactly what's having the impact. But we know, that by providing people with cash, they're much less likely to have to come back to a food bank. 

Mubin: So we've had a lot of political change. I've lost track of how many Chancellors we've had – I think it might be four in that past three or four months. One of the things that is in the government's in tray is further cuts to public services and potentially not uprating benefits with inflation. What do you think that impact might have on food banks that you're running?

Emma: Extraordinary, potentially, as we go into next year. We've had some one off payments in this year that the government have made, got the energy price guarantee for a period of time as we look into next year, where those things are not in place. And then you don't uprate benefits in line with inflation, you're looking at a cut to the amount of money people will have going into next year, after a year with a significant increase in people finding themselves at food banks, to then be facing a real time cut to benefits come in April, if benefits aren't uprated in line with inflation, I think it could be catastrophic. We know that for people on benefits, the vast majority of their income is taken up on essential items, all of which have been impacted by inflation. There's not the money there to offset other costs, and try and cover that. Benefits must uprate, because they've already been shaved back to the bare minimum, over successive years after four or five years of freezes to those benefits, and then not being uprated, and they're not being upgraded, cannot have a situation where we're asking people who have struggled through this year to face another cut, as they go into next year, it would be so wrong. 

Mubin: Yeah. And greater likelihood of people just really paring back on things that we just take for granted. Like not having meals, getting into huge problem debts, which they’ll have real difficulty in terms of paying back. 

On a more upbeat note, what's the potential for change? 

Emma: The potential for change is huge, on so many fronts. We know what is driving foodbanks use, we know it's about people who do not have enough money. We know who the people are. 

The government intervention, when that payment came in, in July, it went into the pockets of the people who needed it. The right people. It just wasn't enough. But we saw immediately it had an impact on food bank numbers. Immediately, we saw our food bank see a dip in July. When we surveyed people in August, 70% of them had said they'd used that money in its entirety, used on food and toiletries and other essential items. So it went to the right people, they used it absolutely for the things it was intended for. It just wasn't enough. Because by August, people are back in foodbanks. And so we've got the mechanism of targeting, we know it can make a difference on these things. We also saw, I think, which is really encouraging during the pandemic, that we were all willing to change the way we live and work and act to protect one another. That there's a public will for that sense of togetherness and nobody being more effected than others, that language of protection really resonated with us, as a society. We know from YouGov research from last month, that 77% of voters, think that everyone should be able to afford the essentials. 

Mubin: So what’s stopping it?

Emma: We got to do it. We need the government to do it, and they have responded, they need to respond more. We need to just hold that and say actually, it's not can we afford to do, it is can we afford not to do it? If we want to be in a country where people are not depending on mass distribution of food aid. We just got to do it. It's got a cost. But how do we, how do we afford not to? And I think we don't want that for ourselves. We don't want to be a country where if you lose your job, if you have a disability if you have to care for your children, that you have to rely on charitable food aid to get by, I don't think that's who we are. So we need our government to, to respond to that. 

Mubin: A really strong message about strong safety net that we need. And let's see whether or not the prime minister, listens to this call  - but I think it’s a call which lots of people are saying and I think that's possibly a difference from where we were during the period of austerity, where it did feel more like a minority and the general public seems to be much more on board in relation to this.

Emma, thanks very much for your time today, it’s been great to get your insights.

Emma: Lovely to be here

Mubin: If you enjoyed this episode, please like, share and subscribe on your preferred podcast platform, it really helps us spread the word. And don’t forget, series one is available now across all major podcast platforms and on our website. Until next time, thanks for listening