Responses on behalf of Foodshare Maidenhead, a registered charity (# 1142868) and member of the Independent Food Aid Network, based on our several years of experience with providing food support, primarily by operating a food bank and by providing free meals. Not all questions have a response; there are some matters for which we do not have relevant experience or expertise. Foodshare Maidenhead is currently helping over 300 people each week.
Q1. Low income is the primary reason. Payment of rents or mortgages, utilities, council tax etc are locked down through direct debits and people can quickly find there is little left for food, especially if they have a variable income and/or large unexpected bills. While the cost of food has not risen much in recent years (thanks to cheap supermarkets, although arguably quality has reduced), the cost of housing particularly and also energy, transport and insurance have risen, so there is less to spend on food. The freeze on welfare benefits has made it increasingly difficult for many, and then the deferred payment with transition to the universal credit scheme is unmanageable for people already living in poverty (and then the added debts incurred frequently engender a downward spiral into penury).
The above is typical of many who can just about get by in terms of the basic needs of shelter, warmth and food until some extra expense and/or reduced income derails that fragile equilibrium. Then there are some in this state who make things more difficult for themselves by indulgences which they cannot afford but neither can they resist (drugs, tobacco, alcohol, gaming, gambling etc) - not such serious addictions that qualify for professional support (which is anyway less available) but which constitute unaffordable expenses. Many people behave irrationally and do not make good decisions.
The most significant trends over the past 18 months we have observed are (a) in-work people helped by the food bank (self-employed and zero hours contracts); and (b) an marked increase in the number of larger family units (4 person and more) and single people helped.
Q3. Food insecurity is firmly linked to poverty; poor diet is certainly a common consequence of food insecurity but it is not limited to that state. Healthy food is available and affordable.; accessibility is not the issue. A poor diet may be the result of upbringing and what becomes familiar and least effort. It’s evident that many who have to resort to using the food bank already have a poor diet. It is very feasible to have a more nutritious diet and at a lesser cost by shopping carefully
and preparing meals from scratch. That’s a double advantage so why do so few embrace that ? Many of the people we help have very limited cooking facilities, especially when housed in temporary accommodation, and so favour processed food which is easy to eat. There are also many who have very limited cooking skills nor much inclination to cook. The people we see generally show preferences for foodstuffs and brands with which they are familiar, which commonly have higher levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt. We are not prescriptive about what people should eat as it’s generally true that it’s better they eat something than nothing (a harassed parent will often apply a similar rationale with their child), and there are enough things off-putting about having to use a food bank without telling them what they should or should not be eating. We are however concerned that the people we help do have something of a balanced and nutritious diet so we provide fresh food (which very few food banks do), including nourishing ready-meals prepared by volunteer cooks, and fruit & vegetables (which some people have said they would not have otherwise). To redress the lack of cooking skills and encourage more meal preparation we offer cookery lessons and simple recipe sheets with the matching food items, but this touches relatively few. Cooking skills learned either at home or in school appear to have been largely lost to recent generations.
Q5 : Food banks and the provision of free meals can be found in most towns throughout the UK now. Related initiatives such as community larders and social supermarkets are starting to be established, and schemes to redistribute surplus food, for example from company canteens. The food industry, especially supermarket chains, are geared to over-production (consumers will not use a store with unstocked shelves), hence the high levels of food wastage. Charitable organisations operating food banks and providing meals are well-placed to obtain and safely re-distribute surplus food at a local level (the Maidenhead food bank acts a hub, distributing food directly and also having connections to other charitable organisations offering some form of food support). This kind of activity has a strong attraction to people wishing to volunteer, as it does not require any special skills or expertise and there is a fairly immediate feedback loop in terms of perceiving the usefulness of the help given.
Food insecurity is not the only product of living on very low income; social isolation is often an accompanying condition, and the charitable organisations providing food support are typically doing other things to address loneliness and to direct people to other organisations and official agencies who offer support for their other needs or problems.
In an affluent community like Maidenhead there is a lot of goodwill (in the form of food donations, monetary donations and time given) and strong organisational and fund-raising skills. The food support capabilities here far exceed the demand, but ironically that’s often not the case in more deprived areas which have the greater needs and challenges. We have thought about a notion of ‘food bank twinning’ but the logistics appear insurmountable.
Food banks have an increasing prominence within communities and the perception that they are there only to help the homeless and ‘problem people’ is receding. However, their efficacy should not be over-estimated. The number of people helped through Foodshare Maidenhead’s food bank has risen steadily but not dramatically year-on-year. But attention on the number of people helped, the number of food parcels distributed etc is a diversionary focus; the greater issue and challenge is the number that are in a state of food insecurity but are not being helped. The Child Poverty Action Group’s figures published early 2018 counting by parliamentary constituency the number of children living in poverty (per the government’s definition of poverty) numbered almost 3,000 in Maidenhead; factor in the rest of their families, and those without dependant children and the number must be several thousands, so our food bank is reaching maybe around 5% of those people. There are multitudes of people who are socially isolated and in need of food support at least on an occasional basis, and who are invisible.
Q 11. From our experience, there is much scope to further reduce food wastage, particularly with large supermarkets. We have been collecting regularly, through the Fareshare (Tesco, Waitrose) and Neighbourly (Marks & Spencer, Lidl) schemes, starting around two and half years ago. Sainsbury are slow to participate; we were contacted year ago by a 3rd party they are using to set up a scheme and nothing has happened since. Although the supermarkets, especially Tesco, make a lot of publicity about how much they are doing and the “millions of meals” they have shared, there is a lot less to this than meets the eye. Surplus food is mostly bread and baked goods. The store procedures for notifying collections are frequently erratic and unreliable, apparently due to high staff turnover. There are major inconsistencies; some companies will not redistribute chilled foods, citing food safety reasons, while others will.
In our opinion, some supermarkets are being unduly restrictive and could reduce food wastage by redistributing higher food-value (protein) raw/chilled foodstuffs (the chill-chain can be maintained). We have a French and Italian volunteer, who have remarked that food redistribution in their native countries (which began some years before the UK) is much less restricted. There are specific legal obligations in France and Italy, whereas the British approach is an industry code of practice, which can be glossed over or circumvented (this comment can be noted under Q14 and Q15).
Lester Tanner, Trustee, Foodshare Maidenhead
11 September 2019