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Blog 3. Summer time and the living ain’t easy: some food banks run out of food


When the Bank of England’s Chief Economist  wanted to find out about hardship in the UK at first hand, his first tour was to Wales (see Wales has some of the poorest areas of the UK and this includes west Wales, one of the sites for my research on food poverty in the UK.

We’re almost at the end of the school holidays and there have been reports in the national media that many food banks have run out of food. One reason for this is that children who get free school meals in term time are not getting them now which increases demand on food banks (see

Here in west Wales, where I’ve been researching food poverty for three years now, the story is no different. One food bank manager told me that there had definitely been a rise in demand over the school holidays. I have noticed that unlike the situation in some other parts of the UK, where there are volunteer-run (usually church-led) lunch clubs for the school holidays (see for example – see photo) , these seem to be lacking here. A report in a national paper today suggests that a child not getting his or her school meals costs the parents £30-40 per week per child and that there is a proposal for a bill in the next Parliament for schools to continue providing free lunches even in the holidays (

But there are other reasons why food banks are running out and one is the continued impact of austerity policies, including benefit sanctions and the roll-out of Universal Credit ( The Pembrokeshire Herald newspaper for July 21st reported that a PATCH (Pembrokeshire Action to Combat Poverty) food bank had run out of stock. The PATCH manager did not mince her words: ‘There are people here in Pembrokeshire who haven’t eaten for days (yes days) as they wait for their benefits to arrive. One client lost their job and went straight on to Universal Credit, with a six to eight-week wait for any money.’

At another food bank, the manager tells a similar story: ‘There has definitely been a rise in demand because of the caps on benefits’ and goes on to remark ‘I notice they are trying to put more people onto PIP (Personal Independence Allowance)  as it will decrease costs and also make it appear that unemployment has fallen but it’s just massaging the figures’.

During a visit to a Pembrokeshire food bank last April, I bumped into a worker from another agency who was collecting some food for her own clients. She looked exhausted and despairing: ’I’m fire-fighting, yet if I can’t write up reports on my increasing number of cases, they will cut the funding further’.  She goes on to explain that many people have turned to her agency because they have had their disability allowances stopped while their entitlement is assessed:  ‘They should employ proper doctors for the ESA (assessment for disability) not people who just tick boxes. So clients end up having to go for mandatory reconsideration.’ The result of this situation is that for frontline agencies like hers ‘There is absolutely no wriggle room’.

Four months later, the situation had become so bad that Citizens Advice Bureau Pembrokeshire called publicly upon the (Westminster) government to fix the many problems already evident with its new Universal Credit scheme before rolling it out to all claimants from 2018. Pembrokeshire’s chief executive of CAB warned: ‘Many families across Pembrokeshire may be put at financial risk, which in turn can put huge pressure on other local services such as food banks, health, housing and social care’ (County Echo 18/8/17 p. 7). Such concerns were shared by every food bank manager to whom I have talked over the last few months.





Blog 2. The angry farmer and the food bank manager. 280817

This is my third summer researching food poverty in West Wales, and last week I re-visited four of the food banks where I’ve been observing. In an interview with a food bank manager, she told me the following anecdote.

Like many charities, her food bank had set up a stall at one of the large agricultural shows held over the summer and there she was verbally assailed by an angry farmer who made the following points:

  • Food has never been cheaper since the supermarkets treat the farmers badly. It’s a low proportion of family budgets, lower than it ever used to be, so people shouldn’t be in food poverty.
  • Food banks give out the wrong kinds of food: vegetables are cheap and they could give out more of them.
  • One reason why people are in food poverty is because they often don’t know how to cook and the food banks should be doing something about this

These are common arguments used to criticise food banks and their users, so I offer the following suggestions as responses.

  • Food has never been cheaper and it’s a low proportion of family budgets, lower than it used to be. This is because today the supermarkets treat the farmers badly

It’s true that food is often a smaller part of the household budget than it was some decades ago, and a general expectation has grown up that this is appropriate. The supermarkets, with their special offers, ‘value’ products and heavy advertising, foster this view and compete with each other to maintain low prices, a policy only made possible by their high volume sales.

But the actual proportion of the household budget spent on food is heavily class-dependent. Those with higher incomes may spend more money, but they spend a lower proportion than do the poor (this is known as ‘Engels’ law’). Most importantly, food prices have to be viewed alongside wages. In the UK in the last few years, wages have stagnated or even dropped in value while many people are employed part-time, on zero-hours contracts, and for minimum wages.

Furthermore, food is the most elastic part of the budget and most people choose to pay rent, council tax and energy bills first and foremost, since the sanctions for falling into arrears can be severe. Indeed, lack of money to buy food after a meagre income has been spent on such items is a common reason for coming to a food bank.

In any case, food prices have actually been rising recently (see, a factor which was mentioned by many food bank users to whom I talked. Furthermore, while it’s a common idea that cooking from scratch is cheaper than eating processed food, that’s not always the case ( , a fact confirmed by food bank users like the woman who told me: ‘Some dishes it’s cheaper to get a ready-made. For example it’s only £2.00 in Sainsburys for a family-sized shepherd’s pie, you couldn’t make it yourself for that. The meat alone would cost you £4.00.‘

It’s true that many farmers are highly dependent upon supermarkets to sell their products. In my research in Wales over several years, I have often heard farmers complain about their relations with supermarkets: they often have short-term contracts, their products can be rejected on apparently arbitrary grounds of ‘quality’, and in the past, they could even be required to provide ‘two for the price of one’ (for so-called ‘bogof’ offers). Supermarkets negotiate tough price agreements, with the price for some products actually being below that of production.  In recent years, milk has been the most notorious case and the low price offered to farmers has been a major factor in forcing many dairy farmers out of business.

  • Food banks give out the wrong kinds of food: vegetables are cheap and they could buy more of them.

Most food banks give out mainly long-life food such as tins, bottles and packets. The reasons are simple – they do not have facilities for storing perishable food and most of them operate for only a few hours a week in borrowed premises. Over the past couple of years there has been a growth in supermarkets passing on their ‘surplus’ food (i.e. food which is still edible but past its ‘best before’ or ‘sell by’ dates) to charities such as food banks. Particularly successful has been the use of the Food Cloud app, which has been utilised by Tesco in its partnership with Fareshare, but also now taken up by other supermarkets (see Caplan 2017 However, the surplus food given by supermarkets to charity varies considerably in amount, quality and quantity, for example many food banks find that they get more bread than they can use, but not always enough fresh produce.

  • People often don’t know how to cook and the food banks should be looking into this

In 2015, there was something of a furore in the media when Baroness Jenner, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry on Food Poverty, argued that lack of cooking skills is a major factor in food poverty (see It is true that for a long period of time, cooking skills were dropped from the school  curriculum to be replaced by ‘food technology’, but many of the food bank users I interviewed maintained that they did know how to cook – they just could not afford the necessary ingredients.

Contrary to popular perception, the buying and cooking of healthy food is not always a simple matter:

  • There are ‘food deserts’ in some areas where the only shops are small and expensive; this includes both rural areas and some urban estates
  • People may lack facilities or equipment for cooking or money for the energy meter
  • People are subjected to heavy advertising and supermarket promotions for processed food, particularly children
  • The government is unwilling to have any but voluntary codes for food standard quality since it views people as responsible for their own health

However, I found that many users were also often well aware of healthy eating messages, some saying that they tried to ‘balance’ buying cheap processed food by also purchasing better quality fresh food for their children, if they could.

Some food banks are indeed tackling issues of how to manage to produce good healthy food on a small budget, such as the initiatives offered by the Trussell Trust’s ‘More than Food’ (, which includes classes in how to cook economically.

In short, criticisms of users of food banks is very often a case of victim-blaming. While there’s no lack of volunteers willing to help those suffering from food poverty, often through no fault of their own, what is lacking is an awareness of the citizen’s right to food and the means to secure this. Food poverty is above all a matter for the state.