Food banks are charities that don’t want to exist
The skyrocketing cost of living is affecting everyone in Northern Ireland.
Poverty is biting harder. Those who were already stretched then may no longer be coping financially. Meanwhile, a lot people who are still able to make ends meet find themselves with far less cash to spare.
This is affecting food banks, where demand is rising but donations are no longer necessarily able to meet this demand.
What happens when the cost-of-living crisis gets worse, and worse again? New projections suggest that UK inflation could soar to “astronomical” levels over the next year.
Without significant intervention, families who are already struggling will struggle even more, while many people who are currently just about managing will find themselves unable to pay bills.
Household finances are set to get much worse. This is likely to mean a big increase in demand for any and all emergency support.
What happens if some of those supports start finding things tough?
Jonny Currie, NI Network Lead for the Trussell Trust, told Scope: “Things have changed for food banks in Northern Ireland. The main difference is that they are now slightly concerned about stock levels.
“At the start of the pandemic and in the months that followed, they were incredibly well stocked thanks to donations from the public. Now, as the cost of living impacts everyone’s food shop, it is having an effect on what people are able to donate to food banks – which are now starting to weigh up whether to use some of their own funding to bulk buy food.
“Food banks are very concerned that we are heading into uncharted waters, and don’t know how bad things are going to be. Food is one part of a range of issues that people are really struggling with.”
Northern Ireland has 22 food banks, and a further 20 food distribution centres, supported by the Trussell Trust. They are found all over the place. The oldest is in Newtownards. It opened its doors in 2011.
Last week, Mr Currie said that:
- Food bank use in Newtownards in the first six months of 2022 is 47% higher than the same period in 2021.
- Food bank use in Newtownards in June 2022 is 136% higher than in June 2021.
This represents huge growth in demand. However, while the spike in inflation that has been chiefly identified with the cost-of-living crisis only began in Spring (somewhat incorrectly, as the UK has been undergoing a slow cost-of-living squeeze for much longer than that), the number of people accessing food banks has been rising for some time.
Figures issued by Trussell Trust in April said that food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network in Northern Ireland provided 61,500 parcels to people facing financial hardship across the region in the year ending 31 March 2022.
This organisation said this represented a 36% increase compared to the same period in 2019/20 – before the height of the pandemic – as “more and more people are unable to afford the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm, dry and clean.”
It also said this increase was larger than the growth in demand seen in the rest of the UK.
More than 26,000 of those parcels were provided for children - a 39% increase from 2019/20, when almost 19,000 were provided.
Trussell Trust highlighted cuts to Universal Credit as a significant factor in this increased demand, as well as noting the effects of inflation.
However, the organisation’s briefing also noted that demand in January and February of 2022 (i.e. predating the major spike in inflation) was more than 50% higher than in those same months in 2020.
Mr Currie says that food banks are a way to help alleviate poverty - but that government needs to do more to address this broad issue.
In particular, he would like to see Stormont back up and running.
“Trussell Trust is currently working with food banks to make sure all their referral pathways are as strong as possible. That means directing people to mental health support, to places that can help maximise their income such as from benefits, and so on.
“We can’t just ask people to budget better. This is about a lack of income. We find that people who come to food banks are incredibly resourceful. They have to be.
“For government, it’s really about having a functioning Executive. It is up to politicians to sort out how and what the criteria are to establish that, but it’s necessary.
“We want them to use the full extent of their legislative powers to provide as much support as possible.
“Hopefully the £400 support payment for energy bills will be administered properly, while policies like the school uniform price caps and direct efforts to reduce holiday hunger are also welcome. All of those are very good interventions on their own but they are like fingers in a cracking dam.
“This requires a joined-up strategy that addresses poverty in general, and that can only be done by Stormont.”
What can the rest of us do?
The fact that food banks are beginning to get a little concerned about stock levels sounds bad – and it’s certainly not good – but focusing on that too much risks missing the bigger picture: food banks are a sign of social and economic failure.
And, while the Trussell Trust is determined to help all local food banks for as long as they operate, and is equally determined to help alleviate poverty, it doesn’t want to grow as an organisation. Ultimately, it wants to walk off into the sunset.
Scope asked Mr Currie what the public can do to best support the aims of the trust.
His answer was not “donate more food” – although that would be helpful for now – it was this:
“We want people to realise that, while we are incredibly grateful to the public, it is a lot to keep asking people to donate to food banks, especially when their own budgets are being stretched.
“We believe everyone should be able to afford the essentials themselves.
“Food banks are a really good example of civic society doing the heavy lifting, in response to years of governmental failure. The food bank in Ards was the first one in Northern Ireland, and it opened in 2011. They are all pretty new charities, a new addition to our sector, and the danger is that we are starting to institutionalise them, and starting to believe they will be around forever.
“Trussell Trust doesn’t want to around forever. Part of that is getting that message out to the general public. We cannot be comfortable with this, can we? There has always been poverty, but food banks haven’t always been here.”
This message – that food banks don’t want to exist – is front and centre in Trussell Trust campaigning.
Ahead of the May Assembly elections, the organisation produced a manifesto saying: “We’re calling on all parties to commit to ending the need for emergency food and for parties to support actions to help make this happen.”
The briefing paper said that, for this to happen, we need a Northern Ireland Assembly that:
- Supports food banks to deliver on their commitment to end the need for their services.
- Ensures everyone can buy the food and essentials they need.
- Helps local services work together to ensure people get the right support at the right time.
- Involves people with direct experience of poverty in shaping the services they need and use.
“At the Trussell Trust our vision is for a UK without the need for food banks, and we have developed an organisational strategy in partnership with food banks in our network to achieve this goal. Now is the time to build a better future for our communities, one where people are not forced to seek emergency food to get by… The Trussell Trust is calling for delivery of a budgeted Anti-Poverty Strategy for Northern Ireland by April 2023.”
It's difficult to find fault with any of these aims and, yet, Stormont remains in a hobbled state. Meanwhile, inflation keeps rising, and could soon be astronomical.
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