“Many of the foodbank users we spoke to seemed to be surviving from week-to-week, even day-to-day.”
Dr Kingsley Purdam, of the University of Manchester, is one of the authors of a new report that spells out the extent to which food insecurity and malnutrition is affecting families in the UK in 2014.
The paper, Hungry? Food Insecurity, Social Stigma and Embarrassment in the UK, claims that the problem is “much wider than has been recognised” and the demand for foodbanks is “underestimated”.
The implications for many of our young people are clear, with some of the case studies within the report centred on families who are struggling to make ends meet.
I think it important to raise this issue to provide some balance to the unbridled flood of positivity that emanated from the Conservative Party Conference last week. The event was, of course, loaded with glowing speeches by Cabinet ministers heralding four years in power – and much of the positivity was centred around the coalition austerity drive, welfare reform and the now growing economy. Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, particularly, spoke with pride about the cuts to welfare and his mission to end what he called the “damaging culture of dependency”.
His speech was littered with statistics and stories about the positive impact that he claims welfare reform is having. He did not mention foodbanks once.
This contrasted starkly with an article in The Guardian last week featuring Nick Dilworth, a frontline welfare advice worker (http://bit.ly/1ryyp92). Mr Dilworth says that suicide is a regular occurrence among the people he tries to help.
He told The Guardian: “I don’t think the public knows how bad it is. In the past we’ve nearly always been able to find a solution (to people’s problems). Now you come across situations where there is no answer and you can’t do anything.”
In his report, Dr Purdam says we are seeing the “normalisation” of food aid. The paper points out that in one North West city, there are seven Trussell Trust foodbanks, and a further 30 other food aid providers.
It quotes Trussell Trust research estimating that the number of people using their foodbanks will exceed one million this year, and research by Church Action on Poverty which has estimated that more than 500,000 people in the UK are reliant on food aid.
Other evidence for the report, taken from surveys, case studies and interviews with foodbank users, finds that “substantial” numbers of people are skipping meals to prioritise their families.
Dr Purdam has attacked the political debate for describing foodbank users as “opportunists” or “not able to cook or budget”. He rejects these arguments and presents evidence from Citizens Advice Bureau showing that a key reason for foodbank use is “a delay in benefit payments”.
I am not qualified to offer advice about the welfare system and how it should be structured. However, it is clear to me that the unrelenting spin about welfare reform ignores a stark fact – that the implementation of the government’s reforms and its wider programme of welfare cuts have driven many families and their children to relying on foodbanks.
We urgently need a national debate focused directly on how to tackle this problem. What we certainly don’t need is for our ruling party to act like there is no problem at all, and to ignore the issue during its annual conference.
In his speech, Mr Duncan Smith said the coalition’s reforms have “brought security to families once blighted by Labour’s recession” and that the government’s long-term plan would not work unless “every individual’s wellbeing is at the centre of that plan”.
These comments make it even more shaming that such huge numbers of UK families are in such financial dire straits that they have become reliant on food aid.