‘THE FAMILIES WHO CANNOT AFFORD FOOD. Charities try to fill the gap as hungry turn to stealing’ was my local paper’s front page headline last week. The Nottingham Post story continued: ‘Food banks are opening across Nottingham because the number of people who cannot afford to feed their families is increasing. The next day I read in the Guardian that local authorities are planning to invest in food banks in the face of growing need and social security cuts.
Some will see the growing role played by charity-run food banks in feeding the hungry as a triumph of the Big Society in action. But is it right that charities should be having to step in to plug the holes opening up in an increasingly frayed social security safety net? And that local authorities should be turning to charities to fulfil their responsibilities? Charities have an important role to play but most in the sector would argue that this role is to add to what the state provides rather than to substitute for it. Charities can provide the icing but the state should provide the basic cake – or bread. The example of widespread reliance on food banks in North America does not augur well. The Guardian quotes a Canadian researcher who warns that they are stigmatising, unreliable and inefficient.
Things are only likely to get worse. Social security cuts are only just starting to bite (and more are threatened). The discretionary social fund, which provides the ultimate safety net in the social security system, is due to be replaced by local authority support but the money for this will not be ring-fenced. And when universal credit is introduced, it will be paid monthly rather than fortnightly. This is likely to mean more families running out of money and going hungry. Food banks are not the answer; decent social security support and adequately paid jobs are.