The Guardian

Charities torn between helping those in need and resisting prospect of taking over duty previously fulfilled by state

In the 13th most deprived borough in England, a fragile part of the local emergency welfare ecosystem is in danger of collapse. Haringey food bank, in north London, has warned it is struggling to meet the explosion in demand for food parcels from local people living on the breadline.

The food bank was evicted from its rent-free warehouse at short notice by a developer last November and has not found a suitable home. It still collects food donations but now distributes them from two small temporary outlets, a church and a local play centre. There is little storage, no room to talk to clients and no office space. The landline telephone number listed on its website no longer works. Its one full-time administrator has had to be laid off.

At the same time demand is rising inexorably. The food bank’s food vouchers are distributed to the local job centre as well as charities and social workers, who in turn issue them to penniless, hungry clients. The number of emergency food parcels given out has doubled in the past 12 months, and is expected to soar again as welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, which will cut the incomes of thousands of the borough’s poorest residents, begin to bite.

Susan Olurotimi, Haringey food bank’s co-ordinator, is worried that if it does not find a new home it will be unable to cope. “The community needs help. We are willing to do whatever we can do but there’s a limit to how far we can go. This is the time the community really needs us and we feel we are failing them.”

The spectacular expansion of food banks across the UK over the last two years is a powerful indicator of growing poverty as well as a sign of dedication and enterprise of the volunteers who created them. Politicians of all hues havepraised food banks, and as local authority and welfare spending is slashed, and existing crisis services such as the social fund abolished, the state has become increasingly reliant on them. Although this month, the environment secretary, Ed Davey, told the Commons: “It is completely wrong to suggest that there is a statistical link between the government’s benefit reforms and the provision of food banks.”

Sean Gibbons, the managing director of Food AWARE, who is in daily contact with the often desperate recipients of food assistance, regards such statements as risible: “We are moving slowly towards the US model. [Charity food] will become more official and part of welfare provision.”

The crisis in Haringey – and problems in other food banks – is exposing the limits of voluntarism and the brittle and precarious nature of the “big society” approach. Queues, rationing and desperate appeals for food donations as demand outstrips supply are a feature of some food banks, and volunteers are beginning to question whether it is right – or whether they have the capacity – to take on a growing burden that was until recently considered a duty of the state.

In April, after food donations collapsed, Stoke-on-Trent food bank started turning people away. As stocks depleted, families with children, and those over-65s, were given priority; younger single adults referred to the food bank were redirected to local soup kitchens and other emergency drop-in centres.

“We were having to take difficult decisions about how many vouchers we could fulfil, even for those in crisis. It was a difficult couple of weeks,” says the food bank’s co-ordinator, the Reverend Ron Willoughby.

Willoughby believes, the food bank may again be faced with more tough rationing decisions to manage stock levels. “We will be forced to say to the agencies who issue vouchers : ‘You currently get 20 vouchers a month, but we will only be able to give you 10.'”

Getting enough food – and the right kind of food – is a constant challenge, says the Reverend Ben Goodyear of Brixton food bank. When the shelves get empty, appeals go out through social media and other networks. It still ends up short, especially for certain items. Sometimes, says Goodyear, “we have had to literally go out and buy food. We have been in fairly desperate times over the last few months.”

Supermarket collections, where volunteers ask shoppers to buy extra items to donate to the food bank, are a tried-and-tested method of replenishing stocks. A day outside a big retailer will typically net a tonne of food. “We need to do one a week,” says Goodyear. “But there’s only so many supermarket collections you can do each month because we don’t want to annoy people.”

At nearby Peckham food bank, the fear of being overwhelmed by demand is growing. In a recent interview with the Foodbankers blog, volunteer Felicia Boshorin said since April she had spent £700 of her own money buying food to ensure no client was turned away without food. The queues, she noticed, were getting longer.

“We have never run out of food but we’ve got very worried that food stocks get low from time to time and the last month has worried me,” Bolshorin told the blog. “Three months ago, the level of food was really high and you think: ‘We’ve collected half a tonne of food, we’ve filled up nicely!’ And then in just one session all of it is gone. And you think: ‘Oh dear, what am I going to do? Are we going to have to say no one day?'”

Don Gardner, 68, a retired electrical engineer, runs the Camborne, Pool and Redruth food bank in Cornwall. In 2012, it fed 49,000 people. In the first four months of this year alone it has served 29,000. It started three years ago as an emergency service, but has evolved and grown into something larger. “It’s not just crisis situations,” says Gardner. “We are getting people who can’t live onbenefits. And they come to us absolutely desperate.”

Gardner has plentiful contacts, a 22-strong network of local churches and ingenious ways of attracting food donations from all parts of the local community. Stocks ran out in March and the food bank had to buy groceries from a supermarket to meet demand. The rising need for food parcels from people on benefits and from low-paid working families unable to make ends meet, he says, “is just frightening.”

He says he is not political. But he is quietly furious at the way he feels policymakers and politicians fail to understand the often desperate consequences of what may seem like small cuts to the incomes of people already living close to poverty. He wrote to local MPs asking them simply: “Why is there a need for food banks?” Two didn’t answer and the other two failed to answer the question, he says ruefully.

Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust food bank, which oversees more than 345 franchised food banks, including Stoke-on-Trent and Haringey, says rationing is not a common problem and argues that over the long term there will be no supply problem. “In 2012 we collected more food than we gave out.”

Mismatch of supply and demand is often a problem when food banks start up, he says, and it eases as they build up relationships with local churches, schools and other sources of donated food. But he accepts that accelerating demand created through welfare changes is bringing fresh challenges to food banks.

Durham food bank this month published graphs that vividly demonstrate the logistical challenges it faces. The “People fed by month” line climbs inexorably upwards, while the “stock level” line is cyclical, peaking at harvest festival in September then plunging away and flatlining. In December 2012, it had 12,000kg of food stockpiled; by the end of March this had diminished by a third.

“We are getting four tonnes of food a month and giving out roughly six. It’s just not keeping pace, so we eat into our reserves,” says Naomi Stevens, centre manager of Durham Christian partnership, which oversees the food bank.

Stevens hopes a big food collection push in July, held in conjunction with a major supermarket chain, will replenish stocks. But spiralling levels of demand in the north-east – anecdotally, says Stevens, the bedroom tax is starting to drive referrals – mean its 11 satellite food banks around the county are giving out more. It has already identified the need to open three more food banks.

In south Yorkshire, the not-for-profit social enterprise Food AWARE has opened five food banks and runs a number of other food projects, feeding about 1,500 people a week in Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. Its food banks open for a two-hour period; supplies have often run out after an hour, says Gibbons. The demand is overwhelming, he says. In March, Labour leader and local MP Ed Miliband joined a Food AWARE appeal for food donations. The publicity meant that overnight, it received 12 requests to open food banks locally, from parish councils and churches.

Food AWARE’s business model tries to minimise the precarious reliance on public donations, by building up regular and sustainable supplies of unused and end-of-line food from local supermarkets and farmers, and by getting funding from the local council and NHS. Any financial income generated from its training and consultancy arm are funnelled into the food bank projects.

But even this approach is under strain. Food AWARE has been given £15,000 in “non-recurrent” grants by councils and the local NHS clinical commissioning group to help it buy food, fuel and infrastructure. This is welcome but inadequate, say Gibbons, and there are no guarantees the grants will be repeated next year. “We are trying to do the right thing but we do not have the resources. We have some flexibility to meet increased demand but there’s no way we can do this indefinitely. We’d need at least £100,000.”

Charity food expert Hannah Lambie-Mumford, at the University of Sheffield, says food banks face fundamental questions about how they respond to increased demand. “The capacity of individual food banks to meet local demand necessarily relies on the hard work of volunteers and donations from the wider community. Should demand start to be a challenge for local projects, they may be faced with difficult choices.”

Questions include how farshould they expand to take on the vacated role of the state? How sustainable, efficient and effective is a voluntary welfare system reliant on donated food? Will the social justice aims of many volunteers – essentially, the belief that if benefits and wages were higher food banks would barely exist – fall away as they devote their energies towards the increasingly time-consuming logistical challenges of getting and distributing ever larger amounts of food?

The danger, say observers of the way food banks have been incorporated into the mainstream welfare infrastructure in the US and Canada over the past three decades, is that small community responses to food insecurity grow into quasi-businesses, complete with supply chains and marketing budgets. As food banks proliferate, policymakers’ compunction to address the root causes of poverty and hardship diminish. In the US, according to the celebrated food charity academic Janet Poppendieck, food banks have evolved into “a secondary food system for the poor”.

Like many others, Camborne food bank issues vouchers, and theoretically each applicant is limited to three, each providing enough food for a week. The idea is that the food parcels tide clients over until benefit claims are processed, or a temporary financial crisis is overcome. Gardner worries about the increasing numbers of people he sees for whom food insecurity is not a one-off blip but a permanent risk, and for whom the food bank is not a long-term option.

But it is hard for volunteers – especially those with a religious commitment to feed those in need – to gauge where they should draw the line. Volunteers motivated by the Bible (“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat”: Matthew, chapter 25) do not go into food banks to turn away people in crisis.

Set against that is near-universal, unquenchable optimism among volunteers that they can overcome whatever challenges come their way. As Goodyear puts it: “If we need to grow the food bank more, we will do what we can, and hope God will provide. As he has done so far.”

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You can read further about Poverty by visiting this wonderful article by Anna Kucirkova – Poverty: What It Is and What We’re Doing To End It