The spectre of Oliver Twist and the rise of Leamington’s food banks

Britain isn't eating poster

Leamington is one of the wealthiest towns in the country, and yet more and more of its residents are going hungry and turning for help to food banks. The Warwick and Leamington food bank, which opened in July last year, had by the end of March given 1,880 people emergency food parcels to themselves and their dependants, including 574 children, according to figures obtained by Leamington Spark. In total, the five distribution centres in Leamington and Warwick have distributed 23,932kg of emergency food to clients in need.

And the problem is getting worse. At the end of December 2013, the Leamington food bank had fed 702 people in the five months since it opened. In the three months since Christmas, the number had shot up to 1,178. This represents a continuous week-on-week increase since the festive season, and the situation seems to be getting worse, Andy Bower, the operations manager for the Leamington food bank, based at St Paul’s Church, told Leamington Spark.

A nationwide scandal

Britain is the seventh richest nation in the world, yet the story is similar throughout the country. Just before Easter, the Trussell Trust charity, of which the Leamington food bank is a franchise, released figures stating that it had fed over 900,000 people in the UK in the past year. It is difficult to be certain whether these increases are due to the increasingly dire economic situation, or to the publicity that food banks have recently been receiving in the national press and on TV, as right-wing critics, including those in government, maintain. 

But the three most common reasons users give for their visits to the Leamington food bank are delays to benefit payments, low income, and changes in benefit regulations – all of which are the outcome of the government’s austerity policies. It seems reasonable to assume that people are using food banks because they are in desperate need, not because they see an opportunity for a free lunch.

This is certainly Mr Bower’s impression. “The idea that the people who turn up to our food bank are frauds out for a free lunch is ridiculous,” he says, “and it’s an outrage that people are having to rely on food parcels in a country as rich as ours.” And it’s not just people on benefits – working parents, who have been put on so-called zero-hours contracts, and then had their hours slashed by their employers, are also regular visitors.

It’s not as if you can just turn up and get free food as a handout anyway, as Mr Bower points out. To get a food parcel you have to be referred by an approved body, such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or a government agency, and present an official voucher on arrival, when you will be questioned about your needs by the food banks’ growing army of volunteers (people with children get more food, for example).

A recent Mail on Sunday report claimed to “expose” food banks when their undercover reporter lied about his situation and duped the Citizen’s Advice Bureau into giving him a voucher, which he then redeemed for food at a Trussell Trust food bank. Quite what this was supposed to prove is mysterious. It was simple fraud, as Mr Bower pointed out when Leamington Spark visited his food bank, and all human systems are vulnerable to fraud. That’s why it’s a crime. The Mail may struggle to understand such commonplaces, but most people don’t – donations to the charity soared in the weeks after the story broke. According to a report in The Guardian, before the Mail published its article, there had been about 250 public donations since the Trussell Trust launched its JustGiving page in late January. That jumped to more than 3,300 within a few days of the story breaking, with donations of more than £36,000.

While the Mail breaks pointless stories, it remains silent on the real issues. And the real issue is that this is a national emergency, say 170 public health and food policy experts who wrote to The Lancet medical journal recently. They called on the government to take urgent action – not against food banks or ‘scroungers’, but on the real issue, which is that a growing number of people in this country can’t afford food. Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, the standard-setting body for specialists in public health in the UK, said: “We have to face an uncomfortable truth: we may be facing a public health emergency in the UK. The spectre of Oliver Twist is back. Children are going hungry in the UK: they may not be eating gruel but their parents are having to choose cheap food that is filling but not nutritious.”

The good side to this story is that the food banks in Leamington, and around the country, are not lacking for donations of food and money or of labour, thanks to the generosity of givers and the hard work of volunteers. And it’s not a meagre bowl of gruel Leamington residents are left with either. As well as their usual food parcel, users went home for Easter with chocolate eggs too.

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Leamington Spark says… 

The rise of food banks is a double-edged sword politically, says Leamington Spark, and this is reflected in attitudes right at the top of government. Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has attacked food banks: according to officials in his department, the Trussell Trust has engaged in “misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking” and aggressive marketing. For Smith, this alone explains why people are going to food banks: supply has created its own demand. The prime minister, David Cameron, on the other hand, has praised food banks, and has said that he wants to see much more activity of its kind. 

The contradiction is only apparent: Duncan Smith is engaged in the usual work of the Nasty Party – pursuing the interests of his big-business pay-masters, and imposing the costs of the crisis on the poor and vulnerable. Cameron is the ‘human face’ of this same agenda. Cameron has been quite explicit about his desire to take an axe to the welfare state, including the NHS (see next story), and would like to see this system – once called “social security”, for good reason – replaced with provision by business and charity. In other words, the spectre of Oliver Twist really is back – it is conscious government policy.

Leamington MP Chris White is a subscriber to the Big Society vision. Indeed, he was until recently the government’s ‘social values ambassador’ – until Mr White made the mistake of actually standing up for social values, for example in opposing the gagging bill, when he was quietly dropped by his own party.


2 thoughts on “The spectre of Oliver Twist and the rise of Leamington’s food banks

  1. Pingback: Let’s hear more from the parsnips than the land barons | Left Unity Leamington Spa

  2. Pingback: Homelessness: a struggle for support | Leamington Spark

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