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Yes, Foodbank Use Is Complex - But We Can't Ignore The Evidence

08/11/2016 10:49
mangostock via Getty Images

Reading the Trussell Trust press release, I was not in the least bit surprised to see foodbank use had grown yet again , indicating a further record high.

Between April and September 2016, Trussell Trust foodbanks across the UK distributed 519,342 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 506,369 during the same period last year. 188,584 of these went to children. Neither does it surprise me that the government continue to deny any link between their welfare reform agenda and foodbank use.

Foodbank use is complex, they retort in response to evidence showing sanctions are pushing people towards foodbanks - as if this somehow justifies their existence and continual rise, year in, year out. Placing these issues firmly in the public consciousness, Ken Loach's award-winning film I, Daniel Blake, has brought these issues to the attention of a wider audience, and documents the cruel inefficiency of state bureaucracy with remarkable clarity. The film sees carpenter Daniel recovering from a heart attack, attempting to navigate the labyrinth-like benefits system for the first time. Yet Daniel Blake is not the only one in this desperate situation.

During the research for my new book 'Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain', I trained as a Trussell Trust volunteer in Stockton-on-Tees to get a full picture of how a foodbank works, who uses it, and why.

My research shows how it was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit sanctions and delays, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Now, after spending three years as a volunteer, I've met hundreds of people seeking help from the foodbank. There is no doubt that the reasons people need to use them in the first place are messy, complicated and multiple. Ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy were significant factors.

These were often combined with harshly administered sanctions, leading to a situation where deepening struggles with mental ill-health inhibited other coping mechanisms or exacerbated wider crises, leading to a worsening of often already poor health.

I met Janice, 46, who was receiving Jobseekers Allowance after being found fit for work, despite recently being diagnosed with depression, anxiety and arthritis. She was waiting for her Employment and Support Allowance appeal, and came to the foodbank because she'd been sanctioned. Janice explained how she was currently doing a Health and Social Care course at college. She had been sanctioned for missing her Jobcentre appointment because she was at college, on a course the Jobcentre had actually sent her on. Her 11-year-old granddaughter wanted to know why she hadn't been able to stay over for the last three weeks.

Janice told me: 'I haven't got enough food to feed myself, let alone feed her as well - how can you explain that to an 11-year-old?' Janice hadn't told her daughters how bad things had got as she didn't want them to worry. She had debts, including priority debts such as Council Tax, which meant the bailiffs were always ringing up, or coming round banging on her front door. As we sat finishing off our cups of tea, her phone rang. She looked at the number flashing up on the screen and sighed "See? I told you they always ring me up," cancelling the call, as it was the bailiffs ringing her, yet again.

Yes, foodbank use is complex, but that doesn't mean the government should dismiss evidence linking sanctions and their use. Denial only sends further people heading towards foodbank doors, and does nothing to address the serious structural problems of poverty and inequality that are becoming increasingly embedded within the social security system.

We must listen to people using foodbanks so that can we understand who they are, why they use them, and what it feels like. Only then can we start to do something about it.

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