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Abdalkarim Sama, a volunteer at Sufra Food Bank, sorts through tinned food in the storage section on site at Sufra Food Bank, in Brent, Northwest London, October 9, 2019. © 2019 Human Rights Watch/Kartik Raj

Food banks, including those in the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), which the BMJ is supporting in its 2020-21 appeal, have provided a lifeline for many people in the United Kingdom who have been left vulnerable and exposed by a deeply flawed social security system. The need for them will most likely be even more acute over the coming months, with the added economic pressures that the Covid-19 pandemic has visited on the people living on low incomes, and the impact of pandemic-related border closures and Brexit-related freight delays on food supplies and prices.

At the start of 2020, based on my research, I suggested that we should pay attention to more people going hungry and relying on aid to feed their families in the world’s wealthiest countries. I had no idea then that the Covid-19 pandemic would take over our lives during the year that followed, or quite how the demand for food aid would surge once it was clear that the resulting economic shutdown was not just for a matter of days.

The work of IFAN’s small core team and its member organizations across Great Britain, is showing clearly where the UK government has fallen short on its obligation to ensure the basic human right to food.

As our research has shown, cuts to UK welfare spending on families and children are closely linked to the increase in demand for food aid. Food banks, including IFAN’s or the Trussell Trust’s networks, and many others, are providing more help each year to people unable to access or afford enough food. They are filling the gap created by a social security system beset with problems and cuts by the central government to local welfare assistance.

As the IFAN Coordinator, Sabine Goodwin, has observed, food bank use is just “the tip of the food insecurity iceberg.” And similarly, food insecurity, with much of it hidden or underreported because of the stigma around food bank use, is really  just one visible tip of the broader phenomenon of poverty. Some 200,000 children in the UK entered absolute poverty over the past year, and specialists expect that to grow.

Against this backdrop, the economic shock of the public health emergency has been harsh, with a reported decade-high rise in unemployment. Claims for the UK’s flagship social security system, Universal Credit, hit new records, with 1.5 million claims between March 13 and April 9 alone, 6 times more than in the same period the previous year. So, it is no surprise that more people are again having to turn to food banks.

The latest data from IFAN members show an 88 percent increase from the previous year, and the Trussell Trust reports a 47 percent increase across its network. There has been much attention paid – justifiably – to children being left without adequate food during school closures, propelled by the footballer Marcus Rashford’s remarkable campaign.  Even as we published findings in May about the faulty school meal voucher scheme in England, we heard from IFAN network member organizations in Fife, London, Northumberland, and Pembrokeshire that they were also providing food parcels to more children than before.

And as if the effect of public health emergency were not enough for people living on low incomes to bear, disruption of food supply and price fluctuation caused  by delays in freight as a result of Brexit-related procedures loom. In late 2019, when the prospect of serious supply chain disruption last seemed likely, we documented, with the help of IFAN members in Merseyside, the Black Country, the London Borough of Brent, Cumbria, and Northamptonshire, food bank supplies running low and concerns around the impact of price spikes in essential foods on people living on low, fixed incomes.

Given the recent Covid-19 related border closures and the additional disruption to food supply chains, it is hard to feel hopeful about what 2021 holds in store for low income households in the UK.

One reassuring thing, however, against this grim backdrop, is that the charities running the UK’s food banks are increasingly taking the view, together with other anti-poverty advocates, that they must not become an institutionalized part of the UK’s social safety net. They are learning necessary lessons from the North American experience, where industrial-scale charitable food aid has become a permanent part of the welfare landscape. IFAN, in its vision and strategy document, and Trussell Trust more recently in their public communications, have made clear they want to see a UK with a strong social security system, with food banks no longer needed. One important development this year is a greater push by food banks and anti-poverty advocates for a “Cash First” approach, to ensure people in need receive financial assistance rather than emergency food aid. These organizations envisage a country with fewer food banks, not more, in the long run. UK food banks are participating in wider campaigns to end hunger, for better food insecurity measurement, for technical changes to social security law and policy, and to place their work in a right to food framework – all while providing urgent relief to those who need it. Their approach is a reminder that fighting hunger and poverty during crises requires immediate, front-line aid alongside long-term, structural rights-based solutions.

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