Hunger pains – Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite on life in foodbank Britain

by Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite

2 Oct 2017

For the last four years, I’ve been a volunteer and a researcher at a Trussell Trust foodbank in central Stockton, North East England, finding out how a foodbank works, who uses them, and why. Every week, I prepared the three days’ worth of food that goes into each food parcel. I dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was told where it could be obtained. I volunteered at food collections at Tesco supermarkets, asking people to add an extra tin to their weekly shop. Most importantly, I sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the foodbank doors for emergency food.

Foodbanks are fast becoming (or indeed have already become) an ever more normalised and visible part of austerity Britain. Most supermarkets have donation points for collecting pet food for rescue cats and dogs. Now, right next to these collections for abandoned animals are donation points with stickers plastered on them imploring people to ‘Please donate food’. The Co-op has advertised its value range of tinned products as ‘ideal items for the foodbank’, and Asda has placed Trussell Trust emblazoned signs on their shelves underneath tins of Spam saying ‘This is a foodbank item’. There were no UK-focused newspaper articles about foodbank use before 2008 and few until 2012 when the number increased dramatically.

In 2004 the Trust ran only two foodbanks. Today, there are over 400, but overall they run 1500 foodbank centres. In the last financial year, the Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. Of this number, 436,938 went to children. And this isn’t taking into account the many independent foodbanks that help thousands upon thousands of people every day, with the Independent Food Aid Network finding there are at least 712 further independent food banks and food style projects across the UK.

My research, as well as that of other academics, charities and frontline professionals showed that a major reason for people using foodbanks was the impact of welfare reform. It was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons that brought people through the food bank doors were ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy.

Despite the very obvious connection between the cuts to social security and foodbank use, government ministers have consistently refused to admit to a link between the two, instead choosing to dismiss foodbank use as a lifestyle choice of those who are unable to budget properly or those who would rather spend their money on 20 fags, a flat screen TV and three litres of strong cider. Addiction is seen as a ‘lifestyle choice’ – but only if you are the ‘undeserving’ poor. Jacob-Rees Mogg MP recently described foodbanks as ‘uplifting’; in doing so, completely ignoring the wider structural factors that lead people to use them, not to mention the stigma, shame and embarrassment that many people feel at having to walk through the foodbank doors. There is nothing uplifting in not being able to feed your children.

Many people are happy to offer charitable assistance to foodbanks but this should not be to the exclusion of asking why, in one of the richest countries in the world, more than one million emergency food parcels were handed out last year. But we need to remember that behind every tin of food donated is a person with a reason for being there, and we need to listen to them.

Former Conservative MP Edwina Currie has suggested that:

‘Kindly food bank operators rarely have the resources to visit recipients at home. One imagines they would get as incensed as I do at the well-fed dogs, the obligatory wide-screen TVs, the satellite dishes, the manicures and mobiles’.

Well, as a ‘kindly’ foodbank volunteer I have visited people in their homes. Are there people who used the foodbank who had big TVs, tattoos, smoked and had cars? Yes, of course there were. Sometimes these were signs left over from a previous life when their wages paid for their car, or their 24 month contract on an iPhone 6 each month. More often than not, I saw empty spaces where a TV once stood. The only manicured nails I saw were my own. I saw well fed dogs, but they didn’t incense me. What incensed me was hearing how people were getting by, day by day, trying to stave off their hunger pains by drinking endless cups of Value range coffee. Skipping meals so their children were able to eat, even if it meant rapid weight loss and anaemia for the mother.

Foodbanks should not be allowed to be a permanent part of our society. The long-term goal should be shutting foodbanks down because they are not required anymore, not creating bigger and better versions of them. Foodbanks cannot simply let the state withdraw from its responsibilities. They must be seen as shocking and outrageous if we are to ever get rid of them. Humanising the experience of poverty would help to remove the stigma, shame and ideas of ‘undeservingness’ that are so prevalent. Above all, we must confront, challenge and question the popular and pernicious idea that people living in poverty are the architects of their own misfortune.

Winning the British Academy Peter Townsend prize is a huge honour. It feels even more significant to me as Peter Townsend himself grew up in Middlesbrough, a few miles away from where I carried out the research, living what he described as a ‘hand to mouth’ existence with his single mother. I hope that the recognition the prize brings allows the messages of the book to reach a wider audience, and hopefully this will help to begin a new conversation about foodbank use going forward.

At its annual Prizes & Medals ceremony on 27 September 2017, the British Academy awarded Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite the Peter Townsend Prize for her book ‘Hunger Pains: Life inside foodbank Britain’ (Policy Press, 2016). The Prize is awarded in commemoration of Professor Peter Townsend, a Fellow of the British Academy and a distinguished figure in contemporary social policy and sociology. As an international researcher and public intellectual, he made an immeasurable contribution to analysis and policy-making in the areas of poverty and inequality, health inequalities, disability and older people. 

In the book, Dr Garthwaite draws on over 18 months’ experience as a volunteer and researcher at a Trussell Trust foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees to explore the issues of poverty and inequality, welfare reform and austerity in the UK.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the British Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.


Sign up to our email newsletters