In Britain, three million use food banks

July 13, 2023 10:22
Photo: Reuters

“I work in a food bank in Southwark, South London. We have clients of all colours and money and food from many sources, with a small subsidy from the local government. The numbers went up during the school holidays, because children did not have free meals at schools. During the school term, it is an important meal for them.”

David Turner, a university student, describes his volunteer work. “Nearby the food bank are apartments worth one million pounds and not far away is The City, one of the richest places on earth. Such is the wealth gap in Britain.”

These banks give free food to those who do not have enough money to buy it. At the end of March, the Trussell Trust, the largest of these banks with 1,300 outlets, said that the amount of emergency food parcels it distributed rose 37 per cent to a record three million in the year to March, with more than a million parcels provided for children.

It said that, over the year, 760,000 people used a food bank in its network for the first time, an increase of 38 per cent year-on-year. This included an unprecedented rise in the number of employed people no longer able to balance a low income against rising living costs.

The clients of these banks are among the thousands of victims of the economic crisis sweeping Britain. In the 12 months to May, the consumer prices index rose by 8.7 per cent, according to official figures.

In June, the Bank of England raised its base rate by half a percentage point to five per cent, as it struggles to bring down the highest inflation rate in the G7. Financial markets expect it to raise the base rate to above six per cent before Christmas.

“Why are we the only major country with high inflation and high interest rates?” said Jack Smith, a London taxi driver. “Many families eat only two meals a day because they have to use the money for rent. I am fortunate because I own my own house. Those who do not cannot afford to buy one. Why does the government not build social housing for the poor or improve the National Health Service? Many things are inexplicable.”

Andrea Gibson works in a branch of Boots near the City of London. One of Britain’s biggest chemist chains, it had 2,200 outlets across the country. The shop was crowded soon after its opening at 0900 one weekday morning. In June, the company announced that it would close 300 shops in the year ahead despite a 13.4 per cent increase in quarterly turnover.

“Some of us will lose our jobs,” she said. “We cannot understand what is going on. Business is good. In closing the branches, we will drive the customers to our rival firms. Perhaps the owner wants to sell the whole chain.”

Adding to this sense of crisis this year has been a wave of strikes in many public sectors – railway workers, teachers, airport staff, nurses and, this month, doctors. All argue that the sharp rise in inflation has resulted in a fall in their real income and demand wage increases to compensate. The government has been unwilling or unable to meet many of their demands.

The biggest single source of discontent is the quality of National Health Service (NHS), the world’s most free medical system celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. People complain of long waiting times even to see a general practitioner and months to receive a non-emergency operation.

Last year, nearly 170,000 workers resigned from the NHS in England, a record exodus of staff. More than 41,000 nurses were among those who left their jobs in hospitals and community health services, the highest leaving rate for at least a decade. The number of staff leaving overall rose by more than a quarter in 2022, compared to 2019.

In giving reasons for resignation, they cited low wages, the extreme stress of work, the lack of adequate staff and funding and the indifference of the government to their demands.

It is said that the Conservative government wanted to push people to leave the NHS and buy private health insurance.

All this anger means that, in the next general election, the Conservatives will certainly lose power and the Labour Party will replace them. In a column in the Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley wrote that Britain was facing “a hopeless election”, in which voters did not believe that either of the big parties could materially improve their lives or the country.

“Voters need at least one of the major parties to offer a sense of direction to a nation that has stalled, even if the journey is hard,” he wrote.”

-- Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.