They may not be going away any time soon. Many of us began 2018 by snapping up local food banks, thinking that in coming years they would not only help us feed ourselves but ease the burden we felt as our wages stayed below the poverty line. In recent years there have been around seven million meals delivered, and that’s already risen sevenfold since 2013.
Food banks can feel like victory and compassion at the same time. In David Mitchell’s novel Harrowdown Hill, a man in need is rescued by eating the local food bank. It’s a triumph for an institution that can often feel like just one more layer of pauperism. But, as someone who once struggled to put food on the table, I know how lucky I am that I don’t have to rely on them.
A table piled with food and blankets is not a flimsy surface. It is a sturdy resting place. A small child will play nearby. Life is at least not threatened by the glowering watch on a cold December morning. The bank can be the relief that we all need, not the place we fear arriving.
I spent a decade in institutions and, according to Michael Abrahams, clinical professor of mental health at the University of Greenwich, a severe mental health crisis that precipitates the onset of substance abuse is “three months of a sober person intoxicated and forgetting the things they can remember, and the ability to communicate and form relationships”.
New figures on the Department for Work and Pensions show how long we have been in the UK’s longest housing crisis. The statistics also show, however, that those who rely on food banks have a chance to really feed themselves.
Take Skye Vardy, 14, who was given food-bank vouchers by staff at Sutton Deane hospital in Cambridge last month. In the months before his mother Olivia suffered a brain haemorrhage, she ran up debts so big she was offered a place on food banks. Over the last five years, Skye has witnessed nothing but poverty and public destitution. Olivia’s seizures are slowly returning, but her quality of life is still improving – and so are Skye’s chances of enjoying a life of food security.
If there is one UK-wide report that sets out the role that food banks play in helping the UK survive – that isn’t just about employing people and buying fresh produce – it’s Beyond Welfare/Pathways. It has been co-ordinated by Conservative peer Baroness Ros Altmann and works to strengthen the relationship between food banks and primary care services, which are the frontline of policy.
While it reports that food banks are quietly flourishing and are key to low-income families surviving, the report also highlights that there is no single, panacea solution to poverty. It points out that the government’s benefits reforms are undermining the housing market by making it harder for low-income households to keep up with rent and insecurity. Meanwhile, the challenges of food, healthcare and mental health continue to rise.
There are, as with many of our problems, solutions, but they are further out of reach. For those like me who never managed to get through that first year of tertiary education, a three-day university food bank might have been the sweetest triumph I could have dreamt of. Thankfully, I had some expensive chocolate to help me eat the bag of flapjacks and a vegan meatloaf that my mother included in my pile of donations. This Christmas, I will ensure my child has a more modest package. But any parent will tell you that a small bit of sugar at this time of year is completely guaranteed to keep their child sweet.