I suspect that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke for many when he said that the plight of people in Britain dependent upon Food Banks was ‘less serious but more shocking’ than the scene in a Refugee Camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
His comments came at the launch of the report of the All-Party Parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the United Kingdom titled Feeding Britain.
Chaired by Rt Revd Tim Thornton, former Bishop of Sherborne, now Bishop of Truro and co-written by John Glen MP for Salisbury, Wiltshire was well represented in the report, not least because the very first food Bank in the UK emanated from Salisbury under the aegis of the Trussell Trust.
There are now over 400 Food Banks run by the Trussell Trust in the UK, including one in Devizes, and a similar number run by other agencies. The Devizes food bank has a ‘branch operation’ in Marlborough, which is supported by the Marlborough Area Poverty Action Group, facilitated and chaired by Rachel Rosedale.
Britain is not alone in needing food banks. Germany has over 1,000 Food Banks and in France there are 2,000 Restos de Couer helping people at risk of hunger in the winter.
The Devizes Food bank has seen a marked increase in the amount of food distributed and the numbers of adults and children supported. From 500 adults and 250 children in 2010-2011, to 1,500 adults and 900 children in 2013-2014.
This presents us all with the challenge of why such hunger has reappeared in countries with a welfare system offering a minimum income and in countries where there is also vast amounts of wealth.
The report makes it clear that the causes of hunger in Britain are varied and quite complex, but at the same time suggests that there are things that can be done about it, by individuals and the voluntary sector as well as by government.
Although delays in receiving benefits have long been a trigger for referral to food banks (34 per cent in 2006-2007) that proportion has actually reduced in 2013-2014 to 30 per cent.
Most significant is the fact that wages have not kept up with inflation in the last ten years, 2 per cent against 30.4 per cent, and the fact that food inflation (47 per cent), fuel inflation (153 per cent) and rising rents (30.4 per cent) mean that these basic needs take an ever increasing proportion of the lowest paid people’s income.
The report also highlights the amount of food that is wasted by supermarkets and how little of this, just two per cent, is redistributed to those in need. A situation compounded by taxpayer subsidies that turns food waste into green energy.
Reading the report, it is impossible not to reflect that the issue of hunger in Britain today is a symptom of a wider problem about the way our economy seems to work in favour of the better off. For too long, now, the gap between the top earners and the rest has been growing ever wider with the result that ours is a society of great inequality and one that is increasingly ill at ease with itself.
The neo-liberal style of Market Capitalism is in desperate need of being re-imagined, but the shocking thing is how little has been done since the catastrophic events of 2008/2009 and how it is the poorest members of society who have paid the highest price for mistakes of others.
In the meantime, whilst we should be grateful to the volunteers who staff them and for the food that is donated to them, we should all feel a sense of shame that in a land of plenty food banks will continue to have an important role for the foreseeable future.