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Food banks ARE part of the Big Society - but the problem they are tackling is not new

Are more people going hungry in our country than a years ago? Or two or five or ten years ago? Certainly a lot more people are using food banks run by the Trussell Trust. This is a fantastic Christian charity which operates here and in Bulgaria. Their first Foodbank in the UK opened in Salisbury in 2000. They now have 292, growing at the rate of three a week and aim to have one in every town - something between 750 to 1,000.

The number of volunteers involved is over 5,000. It is the epitome of the Big Society. Checks operate to ensure people using the service are in genuine need. It is not a matter of anyone just turning up and helping themselves to free food. But the checks are carried out in a sympathetic, non bureaucratic way. The charity believes they save lives - not because people would otherwise be so hungry that they would starve but due to the suicides averted of those in despair at failing to provide a proper meal for themselves and their families.

The Trussell Trust adds:

The Big Society presents a key policy programme of relevance to this research. The set of initiatives this programme encompasses is designed to further reduce the role of the state and to promote community-level responses to meeting local needs. Key dimensions of this programme include encouraging people to ‘take an active role in their communities’ and supporting not-for-profit organisations. Foodbanks, with their focus on community participation, local responses to local needs, and charitable status are potentially extremely well-placed to inform this policy programme.

For the Labour Party and the Daily Mirror the spread of food banks shows the wickedness of the coalition Government. Such an analysis is crass. They might as well argue that since Salisbury was the first to open one that must be where the worst level of hunger is. The number of food banks have been increasing for years. Although it is true that last year they fed 128,687 people - twice as many as the previous year.

However it is likely that the recession will have increased the numbers in need. The Trussell Trust says it is "hard to assess" how much of the increased demand for their food banks was due to the recession rather than a network that would have rapidly expanded anyway.

With, let us hope, the economy restored to growth will the numbers going hungry in our country decline? Not necessarily. The problem has also been the increased price of fuel and food. That leaves the poor with the choice - eat or heat. The inflation rate might be low but within that overall total, food prices have risen by a third since 2007. Energy bills have more than doubled since 2004.

When considering the result of Government policy on the price of food or energy the moral dimension - that these prices have a greater impact on the poor than the rich - should be remembered.

It should be a factor in the debate about shale gas, for instance, and the potential for cheaper energy in future years.

It should be a factor in considering whether we should remain in the European Union - given that even after reforms the Common Agricultural Policy means each family pays an extra £200 a year for food.

A similar sort of hike is being imposed on our energy bills to subsidise wind farms - although they are an ineffective method of decarbonisation and there has been no global warming for the past 15 years. This is not just an economic and scientific issue but also a moral one.

Apart from these general considerations of economic growth and price rises, there is also the lumbering delay and inertia of the welfare state in catering for those in need.

A spokesman for the Trussell Trust tells me that 30% of those they feed need help due to benefits delay. This is a ratio that has been pretty constant since the charity was set up. They are waiting for the payments to come through, they are being switched from one sort of benefit to another, etc. The problem is not the total amount of money they will end up getting - once the bureaucracy has been resolved they will eventually get a back dated payment. The problem is cash flow. How do they eat in the interim? The inefficiency may be inherent but could there not be a rule that a gap in payments should not take place?

Then another 5% are rough sleepers - perhaps mentally ill, perhaps alcoholics or drug addicts. They are entitled to help from the state but are unwilling or unable to accept it.

Another 10% have got into debt and are caught with loan sharks charging extortionate interest. More should be done to promote credit unions. This isn't a matter of significant public spending. The idea is that they are self financing social enterprises. It is about giving a nudge to help them on the way.

Often those using food banks need help to get through a crisis. The food bank stops the crisis escalating. This is in the interests of local authorities. For instance, if someone is evicted because they can't pay their rent they will pitch up at the Town Hall. So councils should promote and encourage churches that help with this project.

The Government can be proud of having raised personal allowances to £8,105. That means giving a tax cut to the poorest of £300 a year. But there should also be sensitivity to the fact that the same family getting a £300 tax cut and a pay freeze could also face price rises of £400 a year for gas and electricity.

Those spending some time over Christmas running a food bank at their local church are heroes. Their efforts should be supported. That does not mean that the underlying problems should be ignored.


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