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Is It Really True That People At Foodbanks Drink, Smoke And Have Sky TV?

05/05/2017 13:59 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 13:59 BST
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

There's a lot in the news today about the words of one BBC Question Time audience member last night.

"I haven't visited a foodbank before, but I have known people that have. And the vast majority of them that do go for free food, smoke, drink, and have Sky television [groans from the rest of the audience]. That is the truth."

Unlike this gentleman, I have visited lots of foodbanks in my time leading The Trussell Trust. Our network of 420+ foodbanks nationwide have told me some stories of their own.

In Merseyside, Maria was referred to a Trussell Trust foodbank because her first paycheck came five weeks after her last benefit payment. In Newcastle, a man needed a food parcel after a serious spinal injury meant he couldn't continue doing the job he'd done for 33 years and couldn't get a new one. In Brent, a mum came to us after being made redundant, borrowing all she could from family, but realising there was nowhere else she could turn.

In the last year, Trussell Trust foodbanks provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. 436,938 of these went to children. The fact that over a third of the emergency supplies given by our foodbank network goes to children is conveniently overlooked by the narratives that are so often used to stereotype people who have needed a foodbank and downplay the seriousness of UK hunger.

You can't just turn up at a foodbank's doors because you spent all your money on Sky TV. Everyone who comes to a Trussell Trust foodbank is referred by a frontline professional, like a health visitor, who has assessed and referred someone because they are in genuine need of emergency food. There's a process in place, to make sure that foodbank vouchers only go to people who really need them.

If this gentleman had been to a foodbank, he would know that going to a foodbank is a last resort when all other coping strategies have been exhausted. It takes courage to admit you cannot feed your family. People wait on the other side of the road for half an hour, or stand outside in the cold, before finally walking through the foodbank door.

We must stop talking about people who are at their lowest point as scroungers and skivers who have brought the situation on themselves.

It's not the truth.

Anybody can need a foodbank. All it takes is to be hit by something unavoidable, like redundancy, illness, a delayed welfare payment or even an unexpected bill on a low pay.

Last week I spoke to a man who had been a qualified engineer for almost 40 years - he'd been happily married, had never been in debt, never signed on for welfare payments. He was a regular guy.

However I was speaking to him because he'd needed a foodbank. After being made redundant from his job at the age of 50, he struggled to find new work and signed up for Universal Credit, the new system of delivering benefits. He was referred to one of the foodbanks in our network when the six week wait for his first payment meant he ran out of money for food. There's nothing he could've done differently - it was outside of his control.

He never thought he'd need the help of a foodbank. No one ever does. Because nobody's planning to go. There's a vast amount of research on foodbank use - and all of it points towards the simple fact that people are referred to a foodbank when something they could not plan for or expect, hits and leaves no money for food.

Let's be honest - this debate about smoking, drinking, and foodbank use is a serious distraction from the real issue of poverty and hunger in the UK.

Almost 1.2 million foodbank supplies given out is just too many. It's an uncomfortable truth. But instead of dealing with that by trying to downplay, undermine, or dismiss foodbank use by placing blame on people who have been hit by something outside of their control, we should instead be debating what we must do as a nation to look for solutions which mean less people need foodbanks in the future.

The Trussell Trust is determined to see the need for foodbanks decrease and the Department for Work and Pensions thinks so too - they're working with us to try and find practical solutions to the problem of food poverty in the UK today.

If the gentleman in the Question Time audience had visited a foodbank, he would know how wide of the mark his statement is and how much it misses the real point.