Ending the Need for Food Banks in the United Kingdom

July 2022 Submission from the Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health and Social Justice (GSA) to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending the Need for Food Banks

Cash of Food? Exploring Effective Responses to Destitution


We present this submission to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending the Need for Food Banks on behalf of the Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health and Social Justice (GSA)1, a group of non-governmental organisations, national networks, grassroots activists, and academics developing a shared analysis of, and reaction to, the increased institutionalisation and corporatisation of charitable food in rich but unequal countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

The rise of institutionalised corporate food banking, private philanthropy, food pantries, and other charitable “emergency measures” originated in the US and has come to represent the primary response to poverty and food insecurity. This approach spread to Canada and since the mid 1980s has steadily advanced across Europe and other parts of the globe. The harmful policies that have taken hold in North America are being replicated without criticism in European countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and beyond. The Global Food Banking Network (GFN)2 is spearheading this advance.  Founded in 2006 by Bancos de Alimentos de México, Feeding America in the U.S, Food Banks Canada, and Red Argentina de Bancos de Alimentos, GFN is supporting the growth of food banks in 44 countries, further anchoring corporate charity as a global strategy in alleviating hunger through the redistribution of food waste. 

Emergency or charitable food aid solutions have never addressed the root causes of food insecurity. To the contrary, leaving the matter to charity exacerbates poverty by allowing governments and citizens to consider the problem ‘solved’, and to ignore income policies and basic human rights. This creates greater openings for the corporate capture of public policy and funding, and further contributes to the dismantling of social security systems and solutions that address the root causes of persistent food insecurity. 

Our vision at GSA includes the directive: 

“Charitable food banks and other food aid providers should develop exit strategies, while promoting alternative solutions to reduce the amount of corporate food waste they distribute”. 

Therefore, we welcome the opportunity to engage with and contribute to this inquiry, which is much needed and timely, and has the significant potential to set the standard for reversing the unparalleled and disturbing trend of global food banking. 

At GSA we are encouraged to see that the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending the Need for Food Banks is committed to investigating the best ways to deliver support to people facing destitution, in exploring different community responses to support people experiencing a financial crisis to move towards ending the need for food banks. In this response, we offer evidence and insights from across our growing collective which we hope will be useful in further strengthening the Inquiry’s aims. 

Consultation questions

Learning from best practice and new ideas 

  • What lessons can we learn from what other countries are doing to support people who are unable to afford essentials, such as food?

It is vitally important that the terminology of the APPG’s vision be extended to incorporate ending the need for charitable food aid as a response to food insecurity overall, rather than ending the need for food banks. It is therefore critical to extend the remit of the APPG’s inquiry to “ending the need for charitable food aid as a primary response to food insecurity”. As a collective, we therefore fully support and reinforce IFAN’s vision that the remit of the APPG should be broadened to ending the need for charitable food aid, not simply ending the need for food banks.

Writing in a North American context, Andy Fisher (2017)3 describes how a self-perpetuating “hunger industrial complex” is a central part of the emergency food system. Significant here are the ways in which the growing role of corporations in responses to food insecurity makes possible the further retreat of the state. With food banks, we see responses that involve individuals, local authorities, voluntary sector organisations, and private sector companies in various ways, but often instead (and in place) of an active role for central government.

Some US and Canadian food banks within our own GSA network are transforming their provision away from simply redistributing surplus food, towards addressing the root causes of both unsustainable and mal-distributed food systems and of hunger. For example, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona4 is refocusing its funds and staff capacity to centre community development, economic justice and the human right to food, in solidarity with the movement for migrant justice. Its leadership is working to ensure that food donors provide fair conditions for their workers, and recently led a campaign to raise the local minimum wage in Tucson to $15 an hour5. All of these efforts should be the duty of the government and not the responsibility and burden of community organisations. 

Another example can be found in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. The Parkdale Food Centre (PFC)6 is a Living Wage employer committed to providing decent work in a sector known for its heavy reliance on volunteer labour. This, along with other significant changes – such as co-locating with a community health centre to demonstrate that food is medicine; including participants in decision-making, providing employment and educational opportunities; focusing on food that is fresh, delicious and shared with kindness while refusing anything heavily processed – has helped to create a more engaged community. Daily meals prepared by chefs in the PFC kitchen, weekly fresh produce markets, neighbourhood dinners, a grocery program that welcomes anyone to shop whenever and as often as they want using a cache of “points”,  are all part of a series of steps that are currently being tested as they  move towards a model which will look more like a cooperative grocer run by a neighbourhood board than a place where you have to go to get a handout. 

Drawing on examples outside of our GSA network, in Brazil, the city of Belo Horizonte offers an example of how state funding and locally-coordinated governance for food and nutrition security, through collaborations with farmers, schools, ‘popular restaurants’ and other service providers, can bolster food access and dignity for vulnerable populations. For example, subsidised meal programs and food access points for elders, targeted programs for parents, youth, unhoused and other vulnerable groups. Together, these programs showed demonstrable impacts on health and hunger outcomes while supporting regional food producers, as described in the book ‘Beginning to End Hunger’ by M. Jahi Chappell7.

Ultimately, food insecurity and the subsequent use of charitable food aid is the result of poverty. Sadly, this is not new information; income inequality remains a product of structural and political systems that fail to provide a sufficient social safety net for all citizens to, at the very least, meet their basic needs. Ensuring that everyone has the means and opportunity to thrive is what we must demand from good public policy.

  • How could a rights-based approach, such as a right to food or a right to social security, support people who cannot afford essentials, such as food? 

1. Right to Food

It is important to underline the fact that food is a basic human need essential for life, nutrition, health, and social well-being. Food, as the documentation makes clear, is likewise a fundamental human right long ratified by Westminster and Holyrood, and central to the right to an adequate standard of living. As much as the right to food should be emphasised, so should food as a basic human need.

As GSA member Professor Graham Riches has argued8, ultimately, the social construction of hunger as a matter for charity depoliticises food poverty as central to public policy. The UK government is absolved from its moral, legal and political obligations to ensure food security for all. Under international law, the right to food offers a counter-narrative to the neoliberal corporate capture of food charity, welfare policy, and poverty reduction. Reframing food as a basic need enshrined by rights also challenges its primary status as a market commodity. It is becoming increasingly clear that this prioritisation is responsible for the vast levels of unnecessary food surplus and wastage (and other ecological harms) produced by concentrated food production and distribution systems9. Reframing food as a right means refusing to consider food surplus as an adequate or appropriate source of good food for those excluded from markets; instead, it suggests that government and agrifood policy should prioritise access to healthy, sustainable food for vulnerable consumer groups over, for example, subsidies for wealthy landowners and/or tax relief for major supermarkets that donate their excess to charity10.

While there is a moral imperative to feed hungry people, basic human needs should not be left to the compassion of community volunteers nor downloaded to the happenstance and unaccountability of corporate food charity. The literature speaks eloquently to the ‘dark side’ of food banking, of the shame and loss of human dignity experienced by those standing in food bank lines.

Enshrining a “Right to Food” into UK law would make the Government legally responsible to take action to prevent barriers in accessing food, and to take steps to tackle the crisis of food insecurity in the UK. Realising a holistic human right to adequate food and nutrition can shift the conversation beyond food access and charity, and also uncover solutions that strike at the systemic root causes of hunger and poverty. In the same way that the causes of food insecurity were palpable long before the COVID-19 outbreak, the responses to the increased need for food and income during these times are also not ‘new’. 

Food banks do not just offer food – they offer a place for people to come together, have a cup of tea and a slice of toast, and gain companionship, which can reduce social isolation. Food connects us to each other, within and across cultures. Healthy food systems based on the Right to Food could include subsidised produce markets and food hubs in all neighbourhoods. Grassroots organisations and their communities, and global social movements, have a long history of organising and responding to the needs of those seeking food and income – from mutual aid to solidarity brigades, to increased household and community food production11. There is now a resurgence of communities organising around mutual aid – a set of principles guiding the interdependent, horizontal and collective care extended to those who are in community with one another. However, food-based, community-level solutions cannot replace the systemic change in public policies needed to address the root causes of food insecurity: this requires a guaranteed adequate income floor for all.

Some questions for the inquiry to consider are:

  • What measures can be put in place to ensure the community hub role of food banks, as they are phased out for the purpose of food provision, does not lead to an increase in isolation and have an impact upon (often already poor) mental health?
  • How can this transition be managed? 

The input of food bank managers and volunteers is crucial here. Having food bank managers and / or volunteers on Steering Groups and on Boards of Trustees could be a useful approach.

2. Right to Social Security

The central substantive finding from the varied but related work of the Covid Realities12 research programme, a major programme of work involving over 100 parents living on a low-income across the UK, is that the social security system is not working effectively to protect people from poverty. Covid Realities participants have called for a social security system that is understanding and compassionate, treats people with dignity and respect, and offers meaningful opportunities and support13.

Evidence shows that food banks (and charitable food provision more broadly) are not an appropriate or long term response to poverty. There are many inherent problems with this form of charitable provision; not only is it stigmatising to have to ask for food aid, but the food received is often inadequate to meet people’s needs and, in some cases, inedible14. As Victoria, a participant in the Covid Realities research programme, said:

It’s emotionally difficult to think I’ve been reduced to asking for stale and mouldy bread. I feel guilty for needing to access such assistance, I feel guilty for binning some of the produce given (my logic being that food poisoning could weaken my kiddie’s immune systems and make them more at risk of the virus, better to go without bread than to risk getting ill by it). And I feel shame. At that moment, I felt disgusted at myself. What kind of mother does it make me?

We need action to halt, and even better reverse, the trend to an ever increasing role for temporary, localised and often charitable provision in response to poverty, given that these forms of support create new chains of conditionality in terms of eligibility. Food banks, localised discretionary welfare support and related provision do not provide their users with security, and are best seen as a response to state failure and the state’s refusal of one of its key obligations – protecting and upholding the social rights of its citizens. 

In early 2021, in an effort to better understand the needs of the community, Parkdale Food Centre in Ottawa launched its first-annual “Knowing Our Neighbours” survey, and 324 households completed it again in 2022. Of the households responding to the survey in 2022, 63% were severely food insecure, and a further 32% were moderately food insecure. Even with the food made available to these households through the food bank and other food programming at PFC and elsewhere in Ottawa, most remained highly food insecure:

“The cost of food, especially fruit, has risen considerably, while my income has been reduced to about  ¼ – ⅓ of what it was pre-pandemic. I do gig work which provides zero security.”

The survey results demonstrated how many Neighbours continue to have anxieties about how they would obtain enough food. 

Over the last year, 92% had worried that food would run out before they got money to buy more.  This compares with 88% in 2021.  Around 75% had eaten less than they felt they should because there wasn’t enough money to buy food; this was similar in 2021 at

 73%: “I would not be able to afford to eat for some months if it wasn’t for Parkdale Food Centre.”

We know that many people rely on the lifeline provided by charitable food. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that people have adequate income to be able to access food in a dignified way. As a collective, GSA support and reinforce IFAN’s calls for a cash first approach to food insecurity so that the root causes of poverty will be tackled through income-focused solutions. Wherever possible, support for people in poverty should be cash-based; no advantage flows from voucher-based provision, as demonstrated by experiences of vouchers as replacements for free school meals during the pandemic. Vouchers extend and embed the stigma of poverty, are not cost-effective, and are often not suitable for those receiving them (for example, when there are restrictions about when and how they can be used). Cash first approaches are preferred by individuals and families due to its ability to enable choice, dignity, and flexibility, as the Child Poverty Action Group have suggested15.

  • How can setting income levels, such as a Minimum Income Guarantee within the social security system or a Universal Basic Income, support people who cannot afford essentials?

The first duty of the government is to keep its people safe. In terms of income safety, earnings from employment aims to provide a certain level of security for the majority of people. For those who can not, or do not work, social security should provide a minimum level of security through the form of a redistributive income safety net. 

However, we have moved so far away from this original Beveridgian notion of social insurance re: ‘Social Security’, through financial security for all, that our current system reflects one of social insecurity. This has been something that has been growing since the late 1970s and the introduction of neoliberalism, individualism and, privatisation and the slow erosion of a guaranteed minimum safety-net for all. 

This is a problem of the liberal capitalist system, one which encourages the above set of behaviours – yet what is clear is that living up to a minimum standard is not always achievable, and that people regularly deal with financial set-backs and troubles. This has been acutely apparent since the Great Recession and the influx of austerity measures ushered in by the 2010 Coalition Government. Austerity brought about a raft of neoliberal policies aimed at rolling back governmental responsibility, and effectively, reducing its ability to meet its first duty. A duty that was off-loaded on to a ‘Big Society’ of charitable providers, writ-large – food banks.

Our current approach to welfare now involves Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy, conditionality, means-testing and a culture of shame and embarrassment. Guided by further neoliberal positions of behaviouralism, conditionality and sanctions, today’s welfare system is the cause of rising levels of food insecurity as has encouraged food banks to become the new safety net16.

However, a Universal Basic Income allows for a rethinking of the social security system. A Universal Basic Income aims to provide every citizen with a guaranteed minimum financial reward and works to undo years of increasing social and financial inequality. A Universal Basic Income has three main tenets:

  • It is Universal, meaning that everyone receives it and it is not means-tested, as is the case with the current system, and does not rely on monitoring recipients behaviour. 
  • It is Basic, ensuring that it only provides for the basics of life necessary to live within a capitalist system. If these costs rise, then so too will the amount received in UBI. 
  • It is a non-withdrawable, permanent Income, provided to everyone on an individual basis to spend how they choose.

As everything within a capitalist system has a financial cost, providing people with a UBI helps people meet these costs. What this means, in theoretical frames, is that a UBI achieves at least the first two layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs17. However, what this means in practical terms is that people struggling financially can afford the basics of life, and importantly, that the government is now delivering on its first duty to its citizens.

Many trials of UBI have taken place across the world. Evidence from the USA18 has shown that a UBI provides empowerment to people to be able to make financial decisions that significantly improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Evidence from Finland19 has also shown that a UBI significantly improves people’s mental health and employment prospects. As Wales is about to begin its own trial with care leavers, we will be hopeful to see how this can improve peoples’ lives20.

With the Consumer Prices Index (UK rate) currently 9.1% higher than in May 202121, the cost of living is becoming an insurmountable task, even for those on an income above the average. The cost of food and fuel have all risen over the last 12 months, and is a combination of multiple causes; Brexit, Covid-19, and capitalism. A UBI is a way through which the government can ensure that all people have the ability to be able to meet these rising costs, whilst still ensuring that money is circulating through the fragile economy of unfettered capitalism. 

Penny Walters, expert-by-experience and a member of GSA is clear: 

“It must be Universal Basic Income. It puts everybody on the same playing field. You shouldn’t have a job and still need to go to a foodbank. You should have enough money to feed your family. If you have any additional needs or fall sick, proper social security safety net needs to be there on the side, to link it with state-funded social services. Untrained volunteers in food banks are now also doing signposting and benefits services like Citizen Advice used to, but their funding has been cut.”

If any food bank organisation or political institution is intent on ending the need for food bank use, then a Universal Basic Income is a significant part of this process. 

  • From your experience and/or observation, what is the one policy change you would prioritise to make sure no one needed a food bank because they cannot afford essentials? 

People are using food banks because they do not have enough income. Ultimately – and as Covid Realities22 participants have highlighted – we need a government-wide duty to reduce poverty and the impact of poverty.

Our social security system and wider public services infrastructure are currently ineffective and ill-equipped to do what is required of them: lifting people out of poverty, and, even better, preventing it. Instead, successive cuts to social security and a conditional, often punitive, regime, create endemic insecurity for claimants, who routinely have to turn to a growing charitable, piecemeal infrastructure for support with their most basic of needs (e.g. for food, clothing and shelter). 

The shortcomings of the social security system were evident before the pandemic23, but it took the pandemic, and the subsequent rapid rise in Universal Credit (UC) claimants, for the issue of benefits (in)adequacy to become a key topic of political and media debate. As we move cautiously out of the immediate crisis phase of the pandemic, we face a further, related, cost of living crisis. This is occurring alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has highlighted growing global food crises and a need for a new world food security strategy24.

We urgently need to bring lived experience into the policymaking process25. It is imperative that those most impacted by poverty and food insecurity not only be consulted, but be fully resourced to envision, plan, and direct the implementation of public policies. The following questions should therefore be considered:

  • How are the APPG involving people with direct experience of poverty in this consultation? 
  • How can it be ensured that involvement of direct experience is appropriately resourced and integrated? 

People with a direct experience of poverty and food insecurity have unique insights into the complexities of foodbanking and need to be meaningfully engaged in identifying the problems and shaping solutions. They should be able to determine their own ways of engagement, which may mean co-creating opportunities for different ways of creative, community-led and caring work26. This may mean novel ways of working for policy makers and other stakeholders, but people with direct experience of food insecurity shouldn’t be asked to participate on other people’s terms. Policy makers and other stakeholders should be supported to explore these novel, more equal ways of planning and implementing policies. Similarly, participatory practices that do not properly support people with lived experience (pastorally and financially) and do not value their contributions may result in extractive and tokenistic outputs which alienate people from further participation. Therefore it needs to be taken into consideration that meaningful engagement needs to be built on relationships, co-production, opportunities for impact and influence and sufficient time.


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