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01 October 2021

The Importance of Food Banks

The Importance of Food Banks

Our Student Council has just launched their first initiative for this academic year. They have generously decided that they would like to collect food and toiletries for Ealing Foodbank.

Most people have at least a vague awareness of what a Food Bank is. But why do we even need foodbanks? Surely in a developed country like ours, no one has to go without food as the government ensures that everyone has sufficient income to meet all of their basic needs? Could there even be an argument that foodbanks could be harmful, encouraging dependency by allowing feckless families to spend their money on luxuries, falling back on charity to feed themselves? These arguments are very forcefully made by some online commentators.

The UK’s largest provider of foodbanks, the Trussell Trust, gave out 2.5 million emergency food parcels in 2020. Many of the recipients of food parcels are families with children, and a large minority of users have jobs. It is important to note that most foodbanks only give food to those who have a referral from a professional, for example a doctor or social worker to prove that the person really needs to be helped.

How could someone receiving benefits from the government, or even someone in work, find themselves in a situation where they are unable to afford food? Often this can happen due to a run of bad luck. For some people on low incomes, they have enough just to get by on a day to day basis and have no buffer. Imagine that an unexpected event occurs, for example their cooker breaks. People in poverty may not have the money to replace it, and so they buy a replacement on hire purchase. Goods bought on hire purchase tend to be more expensive, and the person in poverty has to find the money for weekly payments from their already stretched finances. If something else happens, for example the oven and fridge breaking in the same couple of months, then the effects can be disastrous. Many people in poverty are only one disaster away from destitution.

Sometimes it can also seem as if people may make suboptimal decisions. Growing up in a low income family, my mother did the sensible thing of telling me that I just had to get over the fact that I had uncool trainers, telling me that no one notices who has branded trainers and who doesn’t. Of course that part was untrue. Teenagers have an extremely sharp eye for noticing social status, and they are well aware of who has the latest consumer goods and who is wearing cheap unbranded goods and very prone to judging on the basis of this. Some families made a different choice, giving in to their child’s pleas and buying trainers from a catalogue, trying to buy a little sunshine and happiness and making low weekly payments over a long period of time. However, if the parent then loses their low paid job and still has to make payments for things they have bought, then the money they receive in benefits will quickly become eroded.

It is a fact that many people do not have savings put aside for a rainy day. Wages have not kept pace with inflation, especially when the effects of the price of housing, whether rented or owner-occupied, is taken into account. Many jobs are zero-hours, offering no security. Even people working very hard indeed may not have a buffer against hardship. These people have been described as the “precariat”, and they are a very real presence in society even if their struggles often remain unseen.

Food is a basic human right. Rather than pointing the finger of blame at people in need, we must develop an attitude that fundamentals like nutritious food and warm, safe housing are everyone’s entitlement. It shouldn’t matter why someone is in need, just that they are. It is only by giving when we are in a position of strength that we can make sure that these provisions are in place if we, in turn, ever find ourselves in a position of need. If everyone in our college community brought in even one item of food, what a difference we would make.

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