When I started the largest independent food bank in Britain I thought it’d be a stop gap – But the government hasn’t got the message
We are almost at that time of year when the press office teams at the, increasingly corporate, food bank operators pump out the annual reports and latest figures for the millions who were helped by their food bank operation in 2017 .Their figure will give the main stream news the headline for the day. Film crews will be sent to the nation’s establishment food banks to report on the ever increasing numbers. Viewers and listeners will, as they do at Christmas, put their hands in their pockets and it will be forgotten about until next year’s figures. After all, the only news in town these days is Brexit . The numbers of people dying and living on our streets and the ever- growing number of people without food in Britain 2018 is just not a story the media is that keen to report. Poverty in all its forms, you see, is just not cool these days.
The real scandal about the rise of food bank Britain is the acceptability that it is what it is and nothing can be done about it. However, every single food bank operator in the country agrees on this single aspect: welfare reform is the cause and the 2 million people a year being sanctioned are being driven in to poverty. Can you imagine or how you would cope, or what you would do for 13 weeks plus without a single penny? When I started up the largest independent food bank on New Cross Road Deptford in South London five years ago I thought it would just be a stop gap; that the Government would see the problem in the system and insure that the cause would be addressed. After all, what Government would want to be known as the one that helped establish an entire third sector due to poverty caused by its policy agenda?
What Government would want to be remembered for the mother and daughter found starved to death in a flat in affluent Bromley, South London? What Government would want to be remembered for the elderly couple in the Midlands with disability who, when errors occurred in their benefits payments, were forced to walk 12 miles each way to secure a food bank parcel from the only food bank operator in their area, only to be told, after getting this parcel, they could not get another for 12 months. Can you begin to think about how that couple must have felt, returning home with their last food parcel and no money for food, heat or rent. Their option of taking their own lives must, should it not, be put on the doorstep of Number 10 and the Government?
Last week, I attended a House of Commons meeting on food poverty, as I do most months. A panel of researchers and a woman who had helped out at a food bank spoke. There was
no clear agenda, no hashtag to raise awareness beyond the confines of committee room 18. The audience, many of whom had paid £25 to attend, were probably better informed than the panel. The audience were NOT allowed to put forward ideas, examples or tell stories of what they do, how they operate or what they think needs to be done to address the cause. They were only permitted to ask a question: one only, and no more than 30 seconds, to secure the room. A token MP was rolled out to speak, it probably made them feel good that they could share on social media they were a guest speaker of the big issue of the day. Then, as the meeting drew to an end, we were told, “Thanks for coming”, or rather, thanks for your £25 ( these events, are good little earners) and they moved on to the next £25 ticket event.
I am consistently told that I am too radical, too political, too left. As a multi-award winning social entrepreneur, I do understand the issues. I do my time on the front line. But is it really wrong? Am I really out of touch by campaigning to insure the causes of Food Bank use are addressed, rather than being seen as job creation schemes or new annual awards schemes? Am I wrong to hope the Labour party supports the motion I created, calling for the next Labour Government to appoint a minister to Make Poverty History? We have 12 million in poverty, accordingly to the Government’s own figures, so clearly it’s many more, and yet the Motion calling for Labour to act , which has been passed at local Labour Party CLP meetings and at Blackpool Party Conference is still not a pledge. Why? How bad must it get?
Today, as you wander around your local supermarket you are certain to see a food collection point; five years ago you used to see collection points for animal foods for the local animal charity or shelter; four years ago they were joined by local independent food banks that served the area directly surrounding the store. Today you are unlikely to see any animal food collection points and the local Independent food bank has been kicked out and replaced by a corporate food bank operator, who, and this should shock you, then sell much of the food you buy and donate in store to the local food projects who used to be in store.
The invoice for the food is then processed as a service and so VAT is added. Can you believe that food bank charities buying food from operators like Fareshore pay VAT? Why, you may ask, if supermarket customers are spending thousands every week giving food to in-store food collections, does the supermarket cover Fareshore costs? After all, they are just securing customer good -will, but also making a profit.
Why are people donating this food not made aware that it is then sold on, regardless of how little or much this cost may be? Food Bank Britain is becoming so entrenched and controlled that huge numbers of food banks now operate underground. For example, in Oxfordshire, one operates from a graveyard, in Manchester, outside a Job Centre and in the West Midlands, under a motor way fly-over. This is because, dealing in food, they don’t have a cash income. In order to register to secure charity status, you have to have £5,000 income. Councils will not hand over empty buildings that in the age of austerity could do wonders.
Our Deptford food bank was forced to close its premises because our rent was increased from £7,500 a year to £35,000 a year and our local Council, awash with empty buildings, would not give us use of a building or exempt us from £18,000 a year business rate demand, even though we had 4,600 plus local people using our food bank six days a week.
The only solution these days for Food Banks is either to pay the Trussell Trust its £1,500 a year franchise fee to operate (you can tell a sector is big business when you can buy a franchise) something you could get for free by just getting a copy of my book Food Bank Britain, which not only exposes the true inside story of food bank Britain, but also tells you everything you need to know about setting up your own. With 2000 Corporate Food Banks in the UK in 2018 and probably at least 1000 Independent food banks, many operating under the hash tag #SolidarityNotCharity banner, it is not surprising large amounts just go off the radar, as increasingly, when small food banks do open , the red tape, health and safely and insurance regulations quickly shut them down. This results in a situation where only the big guys in this £1 billion pound a year industry can control the food poverty and food waste sector.
As you read this, 54 million Americans get food stamps; this is greater than the entire population of Spain. President Trump, to save cash, is about to restrict the use of food banks so you can only buy what the state says you can have. In the USA at present, you can buy Coca Cola with your food stamps but NOT apples or fruit and veg. Unless you, the readers, start to raise awareness and demand All political parties appoint a minister to truly tackle food poverty in all its forms, Food Stamps and Underground food banks will be increasingly forced to go into the places we usually associate with drug crime and anti- social behaviour.
Is this not a charity scandal we should ALL be demanding action on in 2018?
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