Food for thought

It’s little surprise that it was a question about food banks that kicked off last night’s leaders’ debate. The ‘food bank question’ has become a litmus test for a number of issues which occupy the top spots in the pre-election agenda: the impact of welfare reform (particularly benefit sanctions), the cost of living, widening inequality, and – in its more personal form (expressed in terms of the price of a loaf of bread, a pint of milk, the ideal number of kitchens) – just how in touch political leaders are with the experience of the poorest in society.

The food bank question is a useful way of broaching all these thorny subjects in one fell swoop. But for any issue to attain the status of a political football is never a good thing. Progress on food poverty won’t be achieved by kicking the same well-worn statistics back and forth.

Last month, Demos published British Aisles, in which we looked across the UK and beyond, to mainland Europe, the US, Canada and Australia for alternative ways of providing affordable food. Reviewing some 45 models of ‘community supermarket’ – initiatives offering food not for free, but at below market price, and with a social purpose – our aim was to move on the debate about how we address food poverty in the UK.

In the report, we borrow an agricultural metaphor, arguing that the response to food poverty needs to be one that is ‘sustainable’, and not ‘subsistence’ in nature. We mean this in two ways – referring to the nature of the help given, and to the way the scheme operates.

The provision of free food through food banks is a ‘subsistence’ solution – tiding people over from one week to another, but not best placed to address the underlying drivers of their situation. Of course, there will always be people in crisis, with no money to spend on food, and such crisis support is an important part of the landscape. But not all needs are crisis needs, and food banks are not the only fruit.

What is needed is a sustainable solution – something that does address those underlying drivers (things like chronic low income and problem debt), giving people longer-term access to affordable food, recognising them as consumers rather than solely people in need, and co-locating that food with support.

The report makes recommendations for government action. We call for removal of the red tape which allows so much surplus food to go to waste and a target to help more foodbanks become community supermarkets. This would use the assets communities already have. And it would create a better balance in the kind of support people can turn to.