Britain Discovers Food Banks, Can’t Decide If It Likes Them

Joanna has sugary cups of tea in place of meals.

Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The IndependentThe Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wing Atlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”

But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.

David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.


Michael Hobbes lives in Berlin. He blogs at


9 Comments / Post A Comment

Reutlingen (#4,183)

To put Lord Freud’s quote in context, he then went on to imply that demand for food banks was growing because greedy people were queuing for the free food.
The demand for food banks is growing because the job centres are continuously trying to find ways to withhold benefit payments for esoteric reasons and people are left with no money whilst waiting for the issues to be resolved.

Additionally, you can only be referred to food banks up to three times and they only give you enough food to last you three days.

This is a good place to start if you want to get an idea of how benefits don’t always mean you have a real safety net:

gyip (#4,192)

I remember being VERY surprised that my friend in England didn’t even know what a food bank was. In Canada, we have both government social welfare and food banks, which are absolutely normal. We have food drives around all the holidays, and people do lots of drives at community or work events.

It’s hard to make a conclusion, since I’m not an expert, but it seems like while food banks are seen as filling in holes the government can’t provide for, they’re also seen as a place where people go when they are not on welfare yet … either because they are waiting, or because they refuse to. Popularly, banks are thought of as places to go for people chronically unable to feed themselves, but increasingly, they are stop-gaps for families suffering recent and hopefully temporary lay-offs.

I was surprised to learn the pioneer of food banks in Europe was actually France, which normally disdains all private charity. I think a lot of it was driven by agriculture subsidies — governments would buy up food from farmers to stabilize prices, then had food to give away to poor people. (The US uses this food for foreign food aid, which is stupid and inefficient since it usually costs more and takes longer to ship the food to famine countries than to buy it nearby with cash.) Also most European countries do not have a separate “food stamp” system, they just give poor people cash.

There was also an EU program that used private charities to get food to people who were not covered by the traditional benefits system — e.g. illegal migrants — but it’s set to expire in 2013. Not sure if Britain ever took part in this program(me) though.

@stuffisthings You may or may not know the answer to this, but food and aid policy are entirely out of my professional scope and you seem to know a lot about this, so here goes! I remember years ago, when I was doing food bank donation sorting in my (rural, not wealthy) home town, we used to have to sort out the USDA cans, which I was told were supposed to only be used for Indian Reservation food aid programs, and couldn’t go into Salvation Army baskets because of…reasons? I have no idea what wound up happening to those cans. Anyway, do you have any idea if that kind of US government-run and produced food is grown domestically or imported? I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if it were imported, even though it is all kinds of silly. I know the historic government cheese was domestic, but agricultural business has changed a lot since those days.

questingbeast (#2,409)

You do realise Bishop of Truro is a job/title, not a name? I mean, ‘Governor of Arkansas’ sounds equally stupid if you look at it from that perspective.

Otherwise, this was a great article. I am very much on the side of ‘it’s a disgrace to everything Britain worked for post-war’, but I agree that it’s good it’s being discussed, rather than slipping by unnoticed. It mostly seems like a solution that is arising out of an imagined problem: the idea that you cannot trust people on low-incomes to act sensibly with their money, whipped up by the media (the sort of ‘on benefits and they have a HORSE!’ stuff you get in the Mail.

I do think (and hope) that it may turn out to be a solution of short duration. The likely outcome for 2015, as things stand, seems to me to be Labour (no clear majority) in a Lib Dem/SNP/ Plaid coalition.

selenana (#673)

Thanks for covering this! Very interesting. And yes, I think that the US has such a rich NGO/non-profit culture because there are so many damn holes be plugged that the organizations were born out of necessity.

diplostreetmix (#4,472)

Since when is it more expensive to buy ingredients for from-scratch cooking than to buy processed food? You can definitely buy a greater quantity of ingredients for cooking spaghetti and meatballs than you can buy processed spaghetti and meatballs. And people have heard of cheap foods, right? Dried legumes are basically free. Kale, virtually worshiped by some people, is very cheap and keeps amazingly well.

I also don’t understand why people always bring up that fresh vegetables are more expensive than cookies. First, if you are measuring the value of each product by calorie, vegetables are pretty much going to lose against everything; fibrous volume is part of the point of eating vegetables. Second, frozen vegetables are pretty much the nutritional equivalent of their fresh counterparts, and probably even cheaper than canned.

I’m not opposed to food aid by any means, but it is absolutely a fiction that eating a healthy diet costs more than processed junk.

xenu01 (#4,239)

@diplostreetmix: Oh, that old thing.

Is it cheaper to cook from scratch?

Well, now that I live in California and have both spare time and enough money for groceries, sure. And in my local grocery store, I can buy bags of produce for 99 cents which are just a little bit too ripe, and there is a wide variety of fruits and vegetables which rotate, and bulk bins for rice and pasta, and life is good. We make nearly everything from scratch these days, and life is good.

But! Here’s the thing:
1) My partner and I have no kids.
2) We sink a significant amount of time into cooking everything. We have two days off a week and spend much of it cooking and prepping ingredients.
3) My partner and I share a car, which we use to drive to the grocery store. We are, via car, able to purchase 2-3 bags worth of groceries and bring them home in an hour or less with minimal physical strain. When I lived alone in Philly, my options were either to rent a car (unaffordable), find a ride with someone (Ha! ha!), or take the bus. Seems a lot easier when you’re not living it. Mostly I only bought what I could fit in my backpack, and I walked.
4) When I lived in Philly, my produce options at my local corner store (the only groceries within 10 miles of my apartment) were: tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, carrots, apples. None very fresh. It cost a dollar to buy a tomato. It was so much cheaper to buy a box of pasta (not to mention one box stretched out for single me for 4 meals!) and a can of red sauce. Oh, and cheap carby stuff like pasta and rice is a lot more filling, and sometimes you just want to fill your belly so it won’t yell at you.
5) My partner and I have an apartment. We have a refrigerator. If you buy fresh fruits and veggies, you need to be able to keep them somewhere. Also, they go bad so you had better eat them. Packaged food has a longer shelf life.
5.5)We have a kitchen. We have cooking implements. We have a stove. We have counter space.
6) When you cook from scratch, you sometimes need a little bit of extra room in your food budget for “staple” items like flour, oil, etc. These days, we can have an expensive week when we restock our staples. When my food budget, after rent and transportation and bills was $15-$20 a week or less? I could never stock up on staples because I never had the leeway or I would have gone hungry that week. You can’t just eat flour out of the bag. I mean, you CAN, but no.

There is more, but it’s already kind of long. Just- I hope this clarifies the question of whether it’s cheaper to cook from scratch.

oldflame (#1,553)

I have a fundamental problem with the idea of charity supplanting government-sponsored welfare: people get to choose who they want to give their charity to, if they do give at all. Everyone pays taxes and (ideally) has a representative say in government that decides how they want their tax money to be spent. If you agree to the premise that people should support each other the most efficient way to do that is through taxation and a social welfare system. It might not seem efficient when you’re looking at the paperwork, but do you really want to be a young black man relying on the generosity of rich white guys for your basic food needs?

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