“Do you have a Voucher”? Food Banks and COVID-19

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Kelli Kennedy, University of York, UK.

“Do you have a voucher?” is one of the first questions asked to food bank users. I should know; as a volunteer at the Waterloo Oasis Foodbank in London I’ve asked the question countless times over a tea or coffee to someone seeking help. In light of the current COVID pandemic, more people will request vouchers, and unfortunately, many will not receive them.

UK Hunger and Food Insecurity in COVID-19

New research from a YouGov poll by The Food Foundation and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) revealed that more than 3 million people (6%) in Great Britain have gone hungry since the UK lockdown began in late March. The survey assessed household food (in)security through the following questions:

Thinking about since the UK went into official lockdown (i.e. since March 23rd), did you/anyone else in your household:

  1. Have smaller meals than usual or skip meals because you couldn’t afford or get access to food?
  2. Ever been hungry but not eaten because you couldn’t afford or get access to food?
  3. Not eaten for a whole day because you couldn’t afford or get access to food?

If the answer was yes to any question, the person is deemed food insecure. The most impacted groups include adults with disabilities, adults with children, and those identifying as BAME, according to a preliminary analysis of survey data by Rachel Loopstra of King’s College. With people falling into hunger and food insecurity, many look for help to put food on the table, including the use of food banks.

UK food banks and COVID-19

UK reliance on food banks for the past decade has been well recorded (see here and here for academic accounts). As the welfare system shrank under austerity, rapid expansion of food banks filled the gaps. Records by the Trussell Trust, the largest food bank organisation in the UK, show that their network saw a 73% increase in usage over the past five years, distributing 1.6 million three-day emergency food parcels in 2019 alone.

In light of the pandemic, food banks anticipate a surge in usage, and many are already experiencing this. Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network expressed in a Guardian article, “Food banks in our network are seeing as much as a 300% increase in footfall compared to this time last year but are still struggling to source enough appropriate food.” Goodwin also commented that the Government was being too slow to respond to food insecurity emerging from the pandemic, and described the situation as “spiralling out of control.”

As food banks face difficulties due to a reduced number of volunteers, fewer donations by the public, and surges in users due to the virus, the holes in the system are revealing themselves. I myself have had to stop volunteering due to the pandemic. While grocery store chains such as Asda are making large donations to the system and British Gas workers have stepped in as volunteers, this exposes the inherent problem with food banks: they are a voluntary system. In a system that requires outside participation to run, COVID-19 shows the flaws in this model. A reliance on charity is not sustainable unless there is suitable participation from donors, volunteers, administrators, and supporters. If more people are asking for services than can be met, food banks limited resources diminish their success. If more people need foodbank vouchers than can be distributed or filled, the model proves inadequate. These problems are exacerbated in times of crisis and can overwhelm a system to the point of collapse.

What does this mean for food banks going forward?

Due in part to a decade of austerity, food banks have filled a gap in provision where the welfare system withdrew. The Government was and remains hesitant to acknowledge their role in food insecurity, and only recently admitted that the transition to Universal Credit has fuelled the problem. The Government’s lack of assessment of the causes of food insecurity plays into their lack of action to resolve it. Encouraging food banks to step up to help alleviate hunger essentially has become the decision of the Government, relieving them from the duty to address food insecurity.

Although many food banks express that their mission is to one day no longer exist, they continue to plug a gap in the safety net out of necessity. As communities and Government continue to count on food banks to alleviate hunger, they become further entrenched in the welfare state. As COVID-19 has plunged people into food insecurity, relying on the food bank system becomes more high-stakes than ever before.

The reliance on utilising food banks in the UK welfare safety net is now moving one step further. In the wake of the crisis, the Government is looking to replicate the food bank model of distributing food parcels. Recently, the Government has announced they will be dispensing food parcels to those who qualify, copying the food bank model rather than adopting other solutions such as basic income payment. Instead of recognising the potential faults with relying on food banks in the UK and coming up with a better system, the UK Government has doubled-down on the idea that food parcels are the solution for food insecurity.

COVID-19 offers a unique context for food banks: either their place in the welfare system will be permanently entrenched, with little hope of removal, or their inadequacies will become apparent as the system collapses. If the latter plays out, we may see a policy window open in the UK, positioning society to break away from the food bank model into a different path. Will COVID-19 be the straw that breaks the food bank’s back or will food banks be a British norm for the foreseeable future?

Kelli Kennedy is a PhD candidate in Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York.


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