It began with a BBC Panorama programme in early 2014. It has ended with an All Party Parliamentary report just before Christmas. From start to finish, 2014 became the year in which it has become clear that food banks are far more than a response to a crisis occasioned by the recent recession. Even as the economy grows and employment with it, the number of those presenting with genuine food poverty in Britain continues itself to grow, and rapidly. What's going on?
Firstly, the capacity of poorer households to respond to relatively modest capital expenditure has been greatly weakened by their static incomes but 30% rise in combined food, fuel and housing costs over the last decade. They no longer have the means to save the small amounts needed to buy the next size of children's school shoes, or replace the car tyre needed to get to a job with unsocial hours. Secondly, the escalation of sanctions and delays in the Benefits system leaves increasing numbers without a reliable weekly basic income.
This is not a scenario in which food banks will be going away in a hurry. So where are they going? And what might we do in 2015 to help them reach as good a destination as possible?
Food banks are going further. It's rare now that I turn up in a church in my Diocese of Manchester on a Sunday and don't see evidence of one. They are reaching into every town and suburb. The geographical challenge is can we make them accessible to those in more rural parts of the country? Rural poverty may be more hidden than its urban sibling but it is as stark. The opportunities to access support, and to find work, are reduced by the costs and complexities of travel.
Food banks are going wider. They are gaining support from sectors of society well beyond the Christian churches which provide the backbone of their leadership. Many now directly receive aid from the local authorities in whose areas they work. They have been remarkably successful in attracting people to volunteering who have little previous history of engaging with projects to combat UK poverty. These volunteers are themselves being changed by the people they meet and the stories they hear. Some are drawn by their experiences to engage more deeply with the faith tradition they come from. My question is how can we harness their developing skills and energies in further ways, to strengthen the battle against poverty?
Food banks are going deeper. The level of humiliation involved in approaching a food bank must never be underestimated, but because they are not tainted by being part of the state system, food banks are approachable by many who are fearful of engaging with it. In consequence they are becoming a "gateway" service. Those who visit them can be provided with much more than the wherewithal to make a meal. Food bank customers can be helped to understand, respond to and challenge a disallowal of benefits. They can receive assistance in managing debt, financial planning and budgeting, and be directed towards credit unions, or other forms of emergency finance, with less punitive interest payments than the alternatives. The question is of how much can be piggybacked onto the core service of free food without damaging the ethos and accessibility of individual schemes?
Food banks arise naturally, in local communities. They grow further, wider and deeper in response to local circumstances. Yet how they face up to the common questions and opportunities this growth brings, and which I have tried to explore here, will determine the shape and healthy of the whole movement through 2015.