Paddy and Carol Henderson were activists employed by the UN and working with street children in Sofia. Carol’s mother, Betty Trussell, had left them some money and in 1997 they established the Trussell Trust, a registered charity (no. 1110522). In 2000 they decided to switch operations to the UK on hearing about a mother having difficulty getting enough money to feed her children. In 2005 they set up the first food bank in Salisbury.
After a couple of years they handed over the running to Chris Mould, the former CEO of Salisbury District Hospital. He proved successful at fundraising and organising:
They now have more than a dozen employees and around 30,000 volunteers (according to the Independent 12 Dec 13). In a recent report (apparently a kind of extended web press release, organized as short headlines and charts rather than a more conventional text-based report, at least I cannot find a text report after 10 minutes of looking) Trussell claims to run over 400 food banks and to have given 3 days emergency food to nearly a million people in the UK during the year to 31 Mar 14, roughly half because of “benefit delays” or “benefit changes” and another 20% because of “low income”.
The obvious question is how real the need is. Are the clientele people who have no (legal) way of feeding themselves and their families without these foodbanks, or are they people who are incompetent at managing their (limited) resources, or are they people who simply prefer to conserve their scarce cash if someone is offering free food?
Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for all three explanations and more besides, so the resulting debate tends to generate more heat than light. It is the kind of issue that somehow brings out the worst in the media, because it so easy to get emotionally-charged interviews that support your own pre-conceptions – or those of your target audience.
Of course, this issue has occurred to Trussell, so we have on the “How a foodbank works” page of the website:
The Department of Work and Pensions is not convinced, so we get the chairman, Chris Mould
… responding to accusations that his charity was “aggressively marketing”, Mould said: “You can’t get free food from the Trussell Trust by walking through the door and asking for it; you must have a voucher. More than 24,000 professionals – half of whom work in the public sector and health service, the police, and in social services – ask us to give this food to clients because they’ve made the decision that this individual or family is in dire straits and needs help. We’re not drumming up demand.”
The DWP last week claimed that food poverty has gone down under this government, pointing to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It found that the proportion of people in the UK who said they were finding it difficult to afford food had fallen from 9.8% in 2007 to 8.1% in 2012.
Clearly many GPs and other professionals do not relish a role as gatekeeper to benefits. There is ample anecdotal evidence that the standards they apply, for example, in providing sick-notes vary widely. Equally, is a volunteer food bank manager with Trussell, who sees someone without a voucher but in clear distress, really going to send them away without food? Does anyone really believe that Trussell’s clearly PR-savvy management would not back them up in that approach? The potential damage to the organisation from reports that they were turning away the genuinely hungry because some stupid box had not been ticked would be huge.
The careful reader will also have noticed that I gave three possible types of client, not just the genuinely needy and the scrounger, but also those who find it difficult to prioritize their limited funds. That has been a contentious issue all my lifetime. The old, paternalistic approach was to accept that this “incompetent with money” category is substantial and that it is better to give benefits in kind – the state pays the rent direct, gives food vouchers etc. The other approach was a mixture: partly that such an attitude is dehumanising and insulting and people must be trusted to make their own decisions about their own lives, sometimes coupled with a flat denial that the category exists, partly that it is important to help people to get better at such decision-making. There is no easy answer.
Unfortunately, even debating the issue now seems to be politically incorrect. Food banks came up at the last “Any Questions” (over the Easter weekend). None of the panel dared to address it. They all preferred to accept that all food bank clients are genuinely needy.
To be clear, I am not criticising the Trussell’s work. Indeed I applaud it. There is obviously a genuine problem and the organization is doing a good job in dealing with it.