When Lord Freud commented this week that there was no causal link between the rise in food banks and recent benefit changes, he used the argument that when you provide something for free, there will be an almost “infinite demand”. His background and lifestyle don’t immediately suggest that he has had much experience of food banks, but he was insistent that no proof existed to connect the sharp rise in referrals to food banks with the recent introduction of welfare reform. The DWP has acknowledged that Jobcentre Plus staff are now referring some clients to food banks, so they might be in a good position to advise the Work and Pensions minister what circumstances would lead to this uptake of food bank services.
The idea that if you offer something like food for free, there will always be a demand for it seems on the surface to be persuasive. But perhaps Lord Freud should have looked back a few years before sounding so definite. Back in the 1980s, the UK Conservative Government of the day became involved in the distribution of EEC surplus butter, cheese and meat. The EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy had led to food surpluses being created, generating controversy over piled high mountains of butter, milk lakes etc. The EEC agreed that this surplus should be reduced through redistribution to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. The Conservative administration was initially reluctant to allow this to happen, saying it would have a detrimental economic effect. However, after an extremely cold winter it recognised the negative impact of being seen to refuse distribution and agreed the aid measures.
The Government kept a deliberate distance from the distribution, putting the onus on charities to carry out this work, a task that was difficult for them to refuse. Charities were also left the job of publicising the scheme, and the decision making on who was eligible to receive the food. This led to variances between areas, with some charities being stretched to the limit by the extra demand on their resources and budget and eligibility differing from one part of the country to another. Queues outside distribution centres were a common sight. Whilst a few people worked out that the lack of a central plan meant it was possible to visit more than one centre, many others felt a sense of stigma. The food may have been free, but for them accessing it came at too great a price. Others queued but felt devalued by the process.
Wester Hailes took a different approach to the situation. In 1987, the Salvation Army had taken delivery of 300 tonnes of free butter and some of this was earmarked for Wester Hailes. The local community had recently shown how effective it was at organising support through the Snowline campaign, leading to the Salvation Army asking Snowline to co-ordinate distribution efforts locally. The Snowline organisers decided that everyone in the community should receive a share, and that they would deliver the butter door to door to make sure everyone got enough. The Sentinel promoted the campaign, making sure everyone knew they were eligible for the scheme.
16 tonnes of butter and 12 tonnes of cheese were distributed by a team of local volunteers. When challenged over their interpretation of need extending to everyone, the team pointed out that they were following government guidelines and that it was the government who had designated Wester Hailes as a multi deprived area.
“Coupled with the strong community participation in Wester Hailes, that made it possible for us to argue that every local man, woman and child should get their free share.”
You can read more about the distribution process here.
The door to door delivery and the equality of distribution took away any stigma and made sure that everyone received their entitlement. And it was presented as an entitlement rather than a hand-out. The Common Agricultural Policy had kept food prices high with those on a lower income being particularly affected by the cost of basic food stuffs. It could be argued that they had already paid for the small EEC surplus they received through the scheme.
Whilst everyone in Wester Hailes benefited, in other areas of the country others did not access the support despite it being free, a fact Lord Freud might be interested in. Meanwhile in 2013, the number of people using food banks has trebled over the last year despite that fact that most food banks operate a referral process, ensuring the food parcels go to those most in need. Katherine Trebeck, policy and advocacy manager for the UK poverty programme at Oxfam, commented that
“You have to be in a pretty desperate place to ask someone else for food.”
For more information about the 1987 EEC distribution in Britain:
“The reluctant philanthropists: Thatcherism, the butter mountain and the welfare state.”
By Sue Kirvan and Alan Tuckman Critical Social Policy 1987