The future of food banking in Britain remains quite uncertain. Here are some thoughts on how the situation compares to the US, and some ruminations on what the future holds.
· Measurement. Unlike the US and Canada, Britain does not measure food insecurity. The End Hunger UK campaign is working with MP Emma Lewell-Buck to gain passage of legislation that would establish a national food insecurity measurement. Having this baseline of information will be useful to assess the scope of the problem. However, it will likely be a few years before a measurement is put in place and baseline data is gathered.
· Food waste. Unlike the US and Canada, Britain does not have extensive connection between food processors and retailers and food banks. There exist multiple competing entities – the Felix Project, FareShare, Real Junk Food Project, Company and Community Shops, that collect wasted food and distribute them to charities or sell them to the public through social supermarkets or pay as you feel cafes. It was quite inspiring to see advocates deliberately point out that the answers to food waste and food security were different things, as compared to the States, where they are typically conflated.
· Hunger Industrial Complex. The relationships between food banks and Big Food and Agriculture are starting to take shape. FareShare is partnering with Coke in a holiday cause marketing partnership. Interestingly, Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in the country and one that is well-known for its abusive labor practices (similar to Walmart), has partnered with these two non-profits to promote sales of turkeys, cookies and other products through contributing a small percentage of sales to Trussell Trust and FareShare.
· Stigma. Unlike the US, food banks are not normalized in the UK. Many people do not understand what they are, how they work, or what they provide. A theater troupe has even put on a play to educate the public about the trials and tribulations of people who rely on food banks. Many anti-hunger advocates, even those operating food banks, are outraged that food banks exist in as wealthy a nation as Britain. Food banks are caught between a growing demand for charitable food because of government austerity policies and a powerful aversion to the institutionalization of the emergency food system, which they fear would further encourage the shrinking of the government role in providing or the right to food.
· Economic Crisis. The economy is humming along at near full employment, but food bank usage has soared in recent years according to Garry Lemon, the Communications Director for Trussell Trust. Lemon remains concerned that a recession with a corresponding spike in unemployment would overwhelm food banks, in part because Tory policies have slashed the safety net for the unemployed (and others). Brexit looms on the horizon for early 2019, and many analysts are expecting it to lead to decreases in GDP and a recession.
· Food banks, Trump, and Brexit. In both the UK and the US, neoliberal policies that shrunk the role of the social safety net led to the explosion of food banking. In the US, it is not a stretch to say that anti-hunger advocates contributed to the election of Trump. In Rust Belt communities, they failed to address the loss of manufacturing jobs and the middle class wages that they provided. Instead, they offered two undesirable alternatives: food stamps and food banks, both of which are stigmatizing. As a result, many Rust Belt communities like my home county of Trumbull OH voted red for the first time in 44 years. In the UK, food banks are symbols of the economic dis-ease and insecurity felt as the Tory government slashes social programs. This insecurity was felt most strongly among those who supported Brexit: the less educated older and poorer voters. Perhaps not so ironically, this cohort also is an important part of Trump’s base.
Putting the genie back in the bottle
Unlike Scotland, the English food advocates I met did not seem to think eliminating food banks in England was immediately feasible. The former director of the Trussell Trust was famously quoted, to much consternation, as saying that he wanted to establish a food bank in every town. The organization has backed off that vision, and is in a leadership transition right now. Garry Lemon, the newly hired communications director told me that he’d like to see food banks turned into community-based venues for people to gain skills and access services they need to leave poverty. But that’s his own personal vision, not the official line for the organization.
The future of food banking in Britain is uncertain and is heavily dependent on government policy and the leadership of key NGOs.
Under an expansion scenario:
The rollout of universal credit causes more acute poverty. Brexit results in economic contraction, and a sharp rise in unemployment. Britain imports some 30% of the value of its food; Brexit also causes the price of food to increase dramatically due to a weakened pound and potential trade barriers. Food banks continue to expand and institutionalize. All of these factors place more demands on food banks, which must adapt and expand their capacity. FareShare expands its food waste collection capacity with help from the Global Food Banking Network, and it begins to distribute surplus food into Trussell Trust and some independent food banks. Trussell Trust adjusts its model, encouraging sites to acquire refrigeration units so they can distribute perishable foods from FareShare. The Tory government increases its complicity with food banks, funding infrastructure, as they see food banks to be a relatively inexpensive way to address a growing food security crisis. Food banks increasingly come to resemble a North American model, further integrated into Tory social policy.
A contraction model
The Labor Party returns to power and reverses Tory social policy. Data on food insecurity is collected and released. The British public becomes outraged at the scale of the hunger problem and demands policy changes. Scotland is successful in gaining an effective end to food banking. Wales and Northern Ireland as other devolved nations seek to repeat Scotland's successes. In England, the Trussell Trust announces its intention to downsize its food banking operations, setting a strategic goal of closing 50% of food banks within 5 years.
Moving in a different direction
In a few years, the public has donor fatigue and its support for food banks slowly diminishes. The lessons of the progressive experiments in Scotland to bend down the food banking curve begin to be implemented in England. Trussell Trust begins to shift its food banking model toward a community food center model, based on the work of Community Food Centres of Canada. Its food banks take on more food system type activities, promote healthy eating, social capital, and policy advocacy. It continues to distribute free food but within the context of a more comprehensive approach.