On the Table

Foodbanks are in the news today, not for the first time in the election campaign. Food poverty has become a litmus test for the Government’s record on the economy and welfare reform, so attention will no doubt focus on the political impact of Full Fact’s examination of the figures.  This is understandable: that Trussell Trust statistics were raised with the Prime Minister in the first televised debate and made the front page of a national newspaper on Saturday. But there are two other important points to hold onto. First, Britain is still a wealthy country with a very large number of people reliant on charity to put food on the table. Second, just over half the time, food bank users find themselves returning for more help following their first visit.

These problems relate to big issues about our economy and welfare system, but can also be helped by innovative projects which work from the bottom up. This week two leading parliamentarians advocated a ‘foodbank plus model’, echoing the Feeding Britain report published last year, which urged foodbanks to offer services like debt advice alongside charitable giving.

Another promising idea, is the Community Supermarket model – explored by explored by Demos in our recent British Aisles report. Community Supermarkets are a type of social enterprise prominent in the United States. These organisations differ from foodbanks. Food is sold at below market prices, rather than provided for free. They often aim to stock groceries, rather than pre-prepared food. Wider forms of support are built into the model.

One domestic example is Community Shop in West Norwood, London. It offers heavily discounted food but only to its members. In return for membership, people are required to sign up to programmes of advice and support, such as debt counselling or job interview coaching. The idea to is help people ‘Be the best version of you’, while offering food that they can afford.

Britain needs more Community Shops. Food-banks are best suited to helping people facing acute crises, but community supermarkets can help those with long-term problems, such as low income. British Aisles explores how policy makers can help make this happen. It recommends a government fund to help foodbanks transition into community supermarkets, as well as rethinking regulation that currently prevents supermarkets from donating food to community institutions. This would help address the problem of food waste, described as ‘astonishing’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury last year.

Our aim with the British Aisles report was to explore new ideas and encourage a real debate about sustainable solutions to food poverty. When today’s row dies down, it is important that debate is not lost.