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Behind the headlines: The problem with food banks

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Should we donate food to those in need? Joanna Blytham argues that these handouts aren't a long-term solution.

Food poverty is at a record high. The Trussell Trust, which runs over 400 food banks, has handed out more than 1.1 million emergency food packs in Britain this year, which is up two per cent on the previous 12 months. Most disturbingly, 415,866 of these crisis supplies went to children. Families, in particular, struggle to put food on the table during the summer, when there are no term-time breakfast clubs and free school meals – and parents often skip meals so their children can eat.

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A permanent solution?

Many concerned people try to help those in need by making donations to food banks, or volunteering at one – notably over the Christmas season. However, it worries me that food banks, which originated in the US as a charitable helping hand for people in an emergency, now seem to be in danger of becoming a permanent feature of life for too many of our fellow citizens.

Obviously, I applaud the kindness and humanity that has spawned this growing network. Surely, though, when so many people are in regular danger of going hungry they shouldn’t be dependent on unreliable donations in the form of supermarket waste, or miscellaneous food contributions from individuals?

Quality on a budget

Two people counting pennies to save

Of course, if you’re wondering how to afford the next meal, you may be very grateful for anything edible that comes your way, whether it’s past its sell-by date or of the cheapest standard. Yet, increasingly, questions are being asked about the quality of the non-perishable products handed out at food banks. An emergency parcel for a family of four often contains 20 or so cans.

Charities try hard to include more fresh food, but from a practical point of view this is difficult, so these supplies will always be heavy on ultra-processed products. For instance, a typical food bank recipe suggestion involves making a cottage pie using a can of cooked mince, mixed with chopped canned carrots, and topped with rehydrated packet mash potatoes. So food banks are in danger of institutionalising the delivery of poor quality food to poor people. Surely we can do better?

The ability to afford decent, life-sustaining food should be every UK citizen’s birthright. People struggling to put a meal on the table don’t need a special, different category of philanthropic food, but more money. For most people, that comes down to earning a living wage and paying an affordable rent. And that’s territory for politicians to sort out.

In the meantime, I’m heartily encouraged by new initiatives sprouting up (these include cookery training and not-for-profit markets in 'food deserts', as well as schemes providing freshly cooked meals for the elderly. These aim to change our food system so that everyone, no matter where they live or what they have, has access to healthy, affordable ingredients, and knows how to cook them. When food banks no longer exist we will know that we have made real progress.

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Do you agree with Joanna? Let us know in the comments below...

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