The Trussell Trust is due to publish figures next week on food bank use in 2014-15. It served over 913,000 people in 2013-14, and as not all food banks are affiliated to the TT, the total number is probably close to a million, if not past it. The new figures are likely to show a rise to over a million for the Trussell Trust alone. (Given that setting up a foodbank through the TT involves a £1500 franchising cost, I wouldn't be surprised if there are plenty of 'independent' food banks. Like this one, which has over 1000 users.)
Locally, the Lords Larder food bank has been going for nearly 25 years. In 2013 it gave out just over 59,000 items to help 3979 people, in 2014 it was over 60,000 items to help 4175 people. So the numbers are still rising in and around Yeovil, but not as steeply as in previous years: 2012-13 saw a 25% increase. Around 2/3 of the people helped are adults, 1/3 are children. Just think about that for a minute - 1/3 of a million children in the UK are relying on food handouts from charities.
It's a sign of the disintegration of the welfare state that food banks exist in such large numbers, and cater for so many people. With unemployment down to 1.84 million, the number of adults using food banks is equivalent to between a third and a half of the unemployment total. The benefit system is supposed to rule out the need to rely on charity handouts. It's great that so many are so generous with time and food, and one of the many blessings of having a church in every community is that it means a collection point in every community, and a reminder to every community of the needs of their neighbours.
Maybe there's a wider debate here: the welfare state is the backstop for people who can't support themselves, and don't have the support of family and friends. We'd all see it as a duty to support family members and close friends, less so to support people we've never met. At the moment the pecking order is, crudely put:
Support by family and friends
Support by strangers (i.e. charity and voluntary groups)
so food banks are picking up people failed by the welfare system, MIND are picking up people failed by NHS mental health, Shelter are picking up people failed by the housing market and social housing, etc.
1. Is the Big Society an attempt to reverse the bottom two?
2. For Christians, would we want the bottom two reversed anyway? Who is my brothers keeper, me, or the state?
3. I suspect that most of the extra volunteer time in the Conservative manifesto will go on school governors, as Academy governors are now trustees, and carry a lot more financial and legal responsibility, with less support, than the school governors of 5 years ago. But perhaps there's a chance for a discussion of work: not the cracked record of 'hard working families', but how sometimes its a good thing that not all of our hard work is about providing for ourselves, that its good for the soul, and for the stranger, to put in a shift for something that doesn't directly reward you. Altruism.
4. 1 million people helped through food banks is a sign both of the generosity and success of the voluntary sector (a very high proportion are church run), and of the failure of the welfare system. Because if a food bank isn't there for you, where do you go?
5. If you have a local hustings event, ask the candidates if they know how many people use the local food bank, and how much that's risen by since 2010. If they don't know, or don't want to answer, then they probably don't care.