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New Food Banks like Hounslow's Foodbox Are Inspiring, but Don't Absolve the Government of Its Responsibility

01/05/2013 10:37 BST | Updated 30/06/2013 10:12 BST

What would you do if you found yourself unable to feed your family? It's a question people are having to ask themselves in increasing numbers in Britain today.

On Friday, I attended the launch of a new food bank set by Hounslow Council, residents and partners - called Foodbox. It was a powerful experience, one of sadness that it was needed and optimism that communities are rising to the challenge with energy and enthusiasm. And despite the criticism they so often face, young people are getting stuck in.

Food banks of one type or another are popping up all over the country. It's not just areas like Hounslow or other urban centres. There is even now a food bank in the Prime Minister's comparatively affluent constituency in Oxfordshire.

As Huffington Post reported last week, the number of people in the UK accessing food banks for emergency food supplies has tripled in the last year alone. That's a 350,000 families. It's a shocking development for an advanced industrial country like Britain.

It's all the more striking that this rise has happened before many of the Coalitions cuts have come into effect.

It's not just people out of work who are feeling the pinch, those in work are under pressure too. The squeeze on incomes arising from inflation that outstrips earnings is expected to cut family incomes by over £3000. This is on top of all the other changes to tax and benefits.

There are difficult decisions to be taken: yes, the country has serious pressures on public spending and, yes, if people are able to work, they should work. But there is something wrong when a country like the UK has to rely on food banks to keep a growing number of its citizens fed and healthy.

Polling earlier in April by Yougov showed that Britain remains a compassionate country and believes the Government should not just shrug its shoulders at such problems. Three-quarters of people still believe the Government is responsible for 'making sure that every family has a decent basic minimum income'.

6 in 10 say national and local governments should be most responsible for tackling social problems in Britain today. Only 3 in 10 think the problem should be left completely to individuals, families and voluntary organisations.

It's not enough for Tory ministers blithely to lecture people about wasting food in these austere times as one minister did last week. There is a distinctly 'let them eat cake' feel to this government's response, with an added finger wag, 'but don't let me see you wasting that cake either'.

While the Government disappoints, communities are stepping up. At the Hounslow Foodbox launch were a about a dozen young people form Cranford Community College. They devised the strapline for the scheme: 'Give a Little, Help a Lot' (not sure we'd have gotten a better strap line from a professional agency).

I spoke to some of the teenagers afterwards who were as far from apathetic and disengaged as you could get. They completely got it. They spoke eloquently about this being a model and inspiration for other communities. One young woman told me that she was planning to stay engaged in the project as a volunteer and advocate as it gets going in the coming months.

It particularly matters from the perspective of learning. As one of the teachers present said "how can you expect a child to concentrate at school if they're hungry".

And Foodbox has real ambition. It aims to do more than just provide emergency food supplies, it also seeks to help people understand welfare reform and how as a community they can work together to prevent and relieve poverty.

You could easily imagine people becoming resigned in these difficult times when the Government's economic policy is failing to get growth going. It is inspiring to see the opposite with real compassion and ambition bubbling up from communities.

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Speaking at the launch, Labour Councillor Steven Curran, who championed the project described it as "such an important and valuable resource for this community".

More on Hounslow's Foodbox:

The Hounslow Community Foodbox is the first resident run Food Bank in the country with the aim of involving residents and local groups working together to prevent and relieve poverty, as well as creating new employment and work experience opportunities.

The idea for Hounslow Community FoodBox has been developed by the London Borough of Hounslow and the Hounslow Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations (HFTRA). The ASDA superstore in Hounslow is the main partner for the service and will provide a collection point for shoppers to donate non-perishable items.

Distribution of the non-perishable food boxes will begin in May and will work on a voucher system.

If you live in Hounslow or nearby, get in touch, Foodbox is looking for 50 volunteers http://hounslowfoodbox.org.uk/news/the-hounslow-community-foodbox-needs-you/