Benefit sanctions, stigma and hunger pains - life inside foodbank Britain

Fuse Associate Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite spent 18 months volunteering in a foodbank as part of her research and her new book, Hunger Pains: Life Inside Foodbank Britain, challenges some of the biggest foodbank myths.

Gemma, 32, came to the foodbank just four days before she was due to give birth to her first child. She and her partner had had no money for the last three weeks as they had been waiting for their joint Jobseeker's Allowance claim to be processed. She had been on the phone to the Government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and had told them she was pregnant but was told it could still be another week before she'd receive the money.

So, four days before giving birth, Gemma was at the foodbank asking for an emergency food parcel, when she should have been packing her hospital bag, or putting the finishing touches to the new nursery.

Instead, she was making tearful, frustrated phone calls to the DWP, worrying about how to feed herself, her partner, and her newborn baby.

Gemma is one of the hundreds of people Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite met while volunteering in a foodbank in the North East of England. During 18 months as a volunteer, Dr Garthwaite listened to the experiences of people, like Gemma, facing hunger and poverty. In her new book about foodbanks, the stories show how far from the 'scroungers' myth the reality lies.

Welfare reforms and hunger

Increasing numbers of people are turning to foodbanks for emergency supplies with more than 1.1 million people receiving food aid in the past year.

The research by Dr Garthwaite, as part of Durham University's Centre for Health and Inequalities Research, shows that the welfare reforms, in the form of benefit delays and sanctions, are a major reason for people turning to foodbanks.

In the book, called 'Hunger Pains: Life Inside Foodbank Britain', Dr Garthwaite describes how people also need to turn to foodbanks for help due to ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs and redundancy.

She said: "Using a foodbank is not a lifestyle choice for people, but a last resort which comes with feelings of shame, hopelessness and failure.

"People now seem to accept that foodbanks are a normal part of our society but this shouldn't be the case. It should shock and outrage people that we need foodbanks at all given that we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world".

Red vouchers, donations and food parcels

Instead of relying on statistics or observing from a distance, Dr Garthwaite trained as a Trussell Trust volunteer to get a full picture of how a foodbank actually works, who uses it, and why. Every week, she prepared the three days' worth of food that goes into each food parcel. She dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was told where it could be obtained. She also volunteered at food collections at supermarkets, asking people to add an extra tin to their weekly shop.

Crucially, Dr Garthwaite sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the foodbank doors for emergency food.

She said: "The hundreds of people I met did not want to come to a foodbank. It was not something they planned to do because they didn't fancy going to the supermarket for their food shopping.

"The foodbank was a last resort for people who were mostly existing, not living, and this unsurprisingly led to stigma, shame, and embarrassment for many who were desperately trying to make ends meet".

Photograph “Stratford food bank launch” (8719762063_4b975fc093_3) by Bromford via Flickr.com, copyright © 2013: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bromfordgroup/8719762063


Adapted with thanks from Durham University.

Last modified: Tue, 31 Jul 2018 09:13:32 BST