In recent years there has been an increase of food banks and centres in use in Britain. A number of factors contribute to their increase and there is not a simple answer or solution regarding how to help those that use them. Food banks provide more than just food; they provide toiletries, baby supplies, cleaning supplies, and sanitary products. Other than the tangible objects, they provide a space free from judgement where those in need are able to get provisions and support.
In 2016-17 the number of three-day emergency parcels provided by the Trussell Trust increased by 6.4%, or by almost 74,000 parcels. However, this is not a true reflection of numbers due to two reasons: people on average needed two food referrals, which means the number of food bank users was around 600,000 for the 2016-17 period. Secondly, the Trussell Trust does not run all the food banks in Britain, with many being small local banks run by a community. The increase in use of food banks is tied to the changes made to the welfare system, specifically the introduction of the Universal Credit system. Holidays are often very busy times for food banks, as parents of children who would usually receive free meals whilst at school, struggle to feed their children who are at home all day. Whilst the majority of donations to and parcels given out from food banks are mostly edible, there is an increasing need for non-food items.
Food supplies at a food bank in Newcastle-Under-Lyme in England. Source: Flickr
Recently the Scottish Government announced plans to provide free sanitary wear to low-income women in Aberdeen as part of a six month pilot scheme, making Scotland one of the first countries to acknowledge the issue of ‘period poverty’. This issue has been raised by charities over the years but gained momentum and media coverage in recent years through the efforts of MPs such as Paula Sherriff and projects like the Homeless Period. Menstruation and sanitary products are still somewhat of a taboo subject to be discussed in public spaces, which only adds to the necessity of the discussion of period poverty.
Currently there is a 5% VAT rate on sanitary products, deeming them a so-called ‘luxury product’. After efforts by MPs and campaigners, the UK government has received backing from the European Commission to reduce the tax to zero, which means that after 2017 the tax will be abolished. Currently the money from the 5% tax is donated to various women’s charities in the UK, however this does not directly solve the issue of period poverty. Even with the reduced tax rate and cost, sanitary products are often substituted with toilet paper, socks, and even newspaper. For those in need of food bank support they face the choice of buying food or buying sanitary wear, and food is always the priority.
Other non-food items that can be donated include toiletries and cleaning supplies such as laundry detergent. Hygiene poverty is quickly becoming another problem for families that use food banks. The organisation In Kind Direct distribute goods donated by companies to charities in the UK and abroad. For many food banks essential goods such as toothpaste and toilet paper are provided by In Kind Direct and then given to families in need. A staggering 91% of charities that work with In Kind Direct said that without their support they would not be able to afford to buy the products and distribute them to those in need. Access to sanitary and personal hygiene products is an health issue, but this is also an issue of dignity and self-worth.
There is also a need for sanitary items for babies and young children. Baby wipes and nappies are needed, alongside baby food. One seemingly essential item that should not be donated is baby formula, as food banks do not accept formula in accordance with Unicef recommendations. The Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative aims to provide both breastfeeding and bottle-feeding mothers with access to nutritional food and health resources. They state that mothers who are breastfeeding should not be given formula milk at food banks and instead should be supported to continue breastfeeding. However, it can be hard for new mothers to get the right nutritional foods and appropriate support at food banks.
There is a stigma and shame associated with food banks that is further emphasised by the unsympathetic views of the media and MPs. Throughout the UK food banks are becoming an essential part of people’s lives, the increase in use is not “uplifting”; it is the result of the increasingly complicated welfare system and it’s detrimental impact on real people. Until the reasons behind the increase of poverty in the UK are directly addressed and attempts to improve the situation are made, the necessity of food banks will continue to rise.
There are many ways you can help support food banks, with the most obvious being donating to them. There are donation points in both Tesco and Morrisons in St. Andrews, and the local food bank, Storehouse, can be contacted via Facebook and their website, storehousenefife.org.uk. For more information about In Kind Direct and how you can support their work visit http://www.inkinddirect.org/get-involved/.