An unpalatable truth

Figures released today by the Trussell Trust show that almost 1 million food parcels – 913,138 – were handed out by its food bank network in the last year, compared to 347,000 the previous year; 51% of these were handed out to new clients.

The reaction to these numbers has exposed how politicised the debate around food banks has become. Those on the political left have called them an indictment of the government’s welfare reform programme and claims to be helping the poorest, pointing to the number of food bank referrals triggered by delays or changes to benefits payments. Meanwhile, those on the right welcome food banks as a sign of communities rallying around to help support each other without the need for the government to step in and solve peoples’ problems for them – the ‘Big Society’ in action.

Whatever you think about them, one thing is true – food banks may provide the antidote, but the cure to food poverty lies elsewhere. The Trussell Trust’s food banks offer three days worth of food in each parcel, in exchange for a voucher issued by various frontline services. People are only entitled to 3 vouchers over a one year period – that is 9 days worth of food a year, in emergencies only. What do they eat for the other 356 days?

One of the key criticisms that has been levelled at food banks is that people should not be relying on charity to feed themselves – and yet rising food prices and sluggish wage growth have left many households struggling to afford food.

While some have called for the government to respond to this crisis by increasing wages, reversing benefit cuts and capping food prices, Demos wants to look at how a more bottom-up, community-led approach can provide an opportunity for people to help themselves, without resorting to hand-outs.

new Demos project is exploring the potential of the community supermarket model to offer a sustainable, long-term solution to food poverty by making quality food available at below-market prices, to anybody who needs it.

Community supermarkets are not-for-profit retail outlets that make use of volunteers, bulk-buying and mutual financing to keep costs down. If operated successfully, community supermarkets could be sustainable sources of affordable food to which families could have ready and on-going access.

Although they are only just beginning to take hold in the UK, elsewhere in the world – in Europe, Australia, Canada and the US – a number of different variants of the model have taken root, from food co-ops to food box schemes to French ‘solidarity supermarkets’. Each of these models has something to teach us about how such a model could work on a large scale in the UK.

Over the coming months, Demos will be distilling the lessons from each of these models so that they are useable to organisations looking to go down the community supermarket route. As numbers of people in food poverty continue to rise, we need to come up with some more constructive models of dealing with food poverty, which are less about charity and more about giving people channels to help themselves.