It is a national scandal that the number of families and households turning to food banks is at record levels and is continuing to rise.
Today’s report from the Trussell Trust on food bank usage shows well over 1.1million three day emergency food parcels were provided to people in crisis by the charity’s network in 2015-16, compared to 41,000 parcels in 2009-10: a mortifying increase of 2,612% in the number of people who needed food aid to put a meal on the table since David Cameron became Prime Minister.
Low pay and rising bills have pushed hundreds of thousands of people into relying on food banks, and the Bedroom Tax, sanctions and delays at the Department of Work and Pensions have made things worse. Three quarters of Trussell Trust foodbanks reported low wages were a significant problem for working people who had been referred. Other significant problems for working people seen by the foodbanks include 56% reporting insecure work contracts, 47% reporting high living costs, and 44% reporting problems accessing working benefits.
Food banks have become a truly shameful symbol of a Tory Government that is failing to stand up for ordinary people.
I first asked the Prime Minister back in 2012 about the queues of ordinary people at food banks who could not afford to feed their families. He failed then to acknowledge that this was a real problem and he continues to do so. While his Chancellor was giving tax breaks to those at the top, he was also cutting public services and support for those already struggling to get by. But far from rebalancing our economy and making work pay, the impact of these Tory reforms has been to take money away from ordinary people, both those in work and those seeking work.
The UK, both urban and rural, has been hit by a decade of record low wage growth with former industrial parts of the UK being hit the hardest. And the coming cuts to Universal Credit will only make matters worse, as they take £1,600 a year from over two million low- and middle-paid working people.
We need to tackle the scandal of low pay in Britain. We know the system is broken when some people working in the food and farming industries are being paid wages so low that they cannot afford to eat the food they are packing or picking.
Our food system also generates a scandalous level of waste with the UK throwing away 15 million tonnes of food a year. Just over half of all food is wasted before it reaches our shopping bags.
We all have a visceral reaction to those statistics, knowing that good food is thrown away while more than a million people are queuing at food banks. Yet in the UK, only 2% of our good surplus food is currently redistributed to charities. If we diverted just a quarter of all this wasted food for redistribution, it would make surplus food the second largest supporter of charity after the Big Lottery.
My Food Waste Bill could go a long way towards tackling the huge amount of food waste in Britain and redistributing more than half the nation’s food waste. This would be a step in the right direction but we need to do far more to address the root causes of food poverty.
The Government must take a strategic and joined-up approach to food policy to ensure people are able to feed themselves and their families healthily and adequately.
Emergency food aid should remain just that: the Tories must never be allowed to make food banks a permanent feature of British society.
Kerry McCarthy is the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Labour MP for Bristol East