Post by Kayleigh Garthwaite, Research Associate at Newcastle University and Fuse Associate Member
For the last three years, I’ve been a volunteer and a researcher at a Trussell Trust foodbank in central Stockton, North East England, finding out how a foodbank works, who uses them, and why. My new book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ tells the stories of the people I met inside the foodbank over an 18 month period. The experiences throughout the book offer a serious challenge to persistent myths that foodbank users are simply seeking emergency food as a result of flawed lifestyle choices.
Every week, I prepared the three days’ worth of food that goes into each food parcel. I dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was signposted to where it could be obtained. I weighed kilograms of food in and out. I volunteered at the collections at Tesco supermarkets, asking people to add an extra tin to their weekly shop. Most importantly, I sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the foodbank doors for emergency food.
The idea that more people are using foodbanks because there are more foodbanks is a popular one. But, in reality, people are using foodbanks as a last resort, when the benefit delays, sanctions, debt and low pay have finally caught up with them. My research, as well as that of other academics, charities and frontline professionals showed that a major reason for people using foodbanks was the impact of welfare reform. It was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons that brought people through the foodbank doors were ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy.
stigma, shame, and embarrassment for the people who needed to use them. As a result, people would postpone asking for foodbank support until they were truly desperate.
The big challenge is ensuring that ‘emergency’ food support continues to be seen by the public as a consequence of food poverty and inequality, rather than a permanent solution. We need to listen to the stories and the voices of people foodbanks so that we can understand who uses them, why, and what it feels like. Perhaps these messages are reaching a wider audience now with Ken Loach’s latest award winning film I, Daniel Blake, which has been called ‘a rallying cry for social justice’ with its depiction of the inefficient and often cruel bureaucracy of the benefits system. It is hard to not feel empathy when watching lead character Katie in the haunting foodbank scene, or in witnessing Daniel’s day-to-day struggles in applying for job after job, despite being unfit for work.
But it is hugely important to make sure that the messages in the film, as well as the messages of the book, are heard not just by people who are sympathetic to what the research is saying, but also by people who don’t quite believe that the benefits system is really that bad, or who are adamant that poverty is a lifestyle choice.
Kayleigh’s book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ was placed second in the British Sociological Association / BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed Award for Ethnography 2017.