How not to help food banks

On 31st October, funding for my post at a charity where I had worked for eight years came to an end: I was facing redundancy.

In my last week at work, I went to have my hair cut. (This is a good plan before job interviews: plus, it made me feel better.) I told the hairdresser who was cutting my hair that I was being made redundant, and she pointed out “Well, you can always get temp work in the Christmas rush!” which was an excellent point (and it was a good haircut, too).

At least, I thought it was an excellent point. But there’s not necessarily going to be much paid temp work on offer this year:

High street names such as Tesco, Argos and Superdrug have taken on young people who work for free for six weeks while claiming their benefits.

And critics fear staff at Jobcentres are under pressure to put more people into the programmes – when they could have been given jobs – to meet strict Government targets.

Under Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s back-to-work programme, young people do up to 30 hours’ unpaid work a week. Placements can last up to eight weeks and they only receive travel expenses in addition to their £53-a-week jobseekers’ allowance.

The Daily Record cites a civil service source saying:

“There is no target to get people in work but there is a target of 100,000 to put people into work experience.

“Employers have been told, “Don’t advertise jobs as vacancies. Let Jobcentre Plus supply you people on work experience.’ The morale among those who take part is very low.

“They don’t earn any extra money and weeks later, they are back signing on with no real improvement in their job prospects.

“They’re being taken advantage of by both the employers and the Government. You don’t need six weeks’ unpaid work experience to work on a checkout.”

Unite’s Scotland community co-ordinator Jack Ferguson, said:

“It is all the more cruel that people who have been unemployed all year and looking forward to Christmas when there is more work are going to be denied it because people are available to work for free.

“The companies who would have employed these people will be rubbing their hands. They don’t care about the millions of unemployed at Christmas. All they care about is maximising their profits.”

While the Tories worry about if they really should associate themselves with the sort of people who want to make gay marriage legal, George Osborne blandly accuses unemployed people of being “slackers”, welfare-dependent, and – while making savage cuts at welfare benefits that help the working poor – claims that the Tories want to support “strivers”.

Well before Cameron has to call a General Election in 2015, that myth will be dissolving. Today’s editorial in the Observer challenges the toxic lies of the Conservatives and asks why Labour isn’t:

Of the £53bn rise in spending after inflation, only £2bn was accounted for by unemployment benefit; £10bn pounds goes on housing benefit because too few affordable houses are built. Another £17bn is spent on family benefits and tax credits subsidising low wages, a situation that would have left Beveridge incredulous. And pensioner benefits take a further £24bn, the largest slice. Sixty per cent of children in poverty live in working households and four in 10 jobs are self-employed, temporary or short term. The original welfare state has morphed into one that props up a risky labour market, employers, corporations and landlords while a nation of strivers in too many instances works for less than it takes to feed a family.

Ian Bell deconstructs George Osborne’s sneering in the Herald – I’ve quoted at length but you should read the rest:

At the risk of a good old British sneer, we could try a few facts. According to Home Truths, a study published in October by the National Housing Federation, one million earners will be dependent on welfare by the next election just to be able to afford their rents. That’s “earners”. In May of this year, the figure was 903,440, double what it was in 2008, but rents are rising all the time. To repeat: These are earners.

Scroungers, meanwhile, come in all shapes and sizes. John Park, about to step down as Labour MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, has campaigned long and hard for the imposition of a living wage in private firms contracted to public organisations. This is partly because 28% of workers – that word again – engaged in the Scottish private sector earn less than £7.20 an hour, partly because six out of 10 children in our country belong to families enduring the grisly contradiction known as in-work poverty.

The richest 10% in Scotland – those quaking in their boots because of Osborne – have incomes equal to the earnings of the poorest 50%. In 2009-10, meanwhile, it was found that 57% of children in poverty had at least one parent in work.

Of working adults, 17% are stuck in relative poverty – defined as having a household income of less than 60% of contemporary median household income. Across Scotland, 29% of children are simply poor, while in the UK as a whole 1.4 million working households suffer marginal effective tax rates – the poverty trap – of over 70%.

Osborne’s government wants you to believe that work is the answer to all ills. It would be if wages were fair and enough jobs existed. Oxfam claims, however, that four million of the 13.5 million poor in Britain are in work, of sorts. Meanwhile, the Child Poverty Action Group points out that a couple with two kids would need to find 58 hours of work a week on the minimum wage – if work could be had – simply to be out of poverty by a few pennies.

Kevin McKenna points up the lie that “we’re all in this together”:

And so we also now know that the poorest 30% will be made to bear most of Osborne’s cuts in the age of austerity and that the safety ladder for the most vulnerable and the most needy in society is now missing another couple of rungs. The means tests already being deployed by Atos, the inquisitors of the disabled, betray the gut instincts of every member of the coalition government: that there is a presumption of benefit fraud before any claimant is given a single penny of welfare. It’s an unfortunate stain on Glasgow’s forthcoming 2014 Commonwealth Games that they chose this shower to be among their commercial partners.

The Tories are insisting that their austerity measures will make equal demands on all levels of society. Thus the very rich will have their bloated pension pots trimmed by a few inches and the affluent middle classes might need to keep an eye on the school fees because a few more of them have been pulled into the 40p tax rate bracket. In essence, though, these people will only know that there is a recession happening because it will become cheaper over the next few years to get their grass cut, their trees pruned and their drives paved. It will not change the direction of their lives, but merely slow the pace for a couple of years.

The Trussell Trust provides three days’ worth of emergency food to people referred to them: there are two Trussell food banks in Edinburgh (EdinburghNW and EdinburghSE), and the Edinburgh City Mission is still offering help from its Basics Bank. All of them could use donations.

I’ve seen a basket for food bank donations in my local Scotmid. Sainsbury’s has a whole food bank scheme going – cheaper PR than paying a living wage so that its employees don’t get trapped in in-work poverty.

Jason Kuznicki pointed out with regard to giving food to a food bank:

Do you want to give food? Add up its retail price. Take that money out of your wallet. Flush 90% of it down the toilet. Send the food bank the rest. You’re still helping more than if you gave the food.[2]

Ignorance may be partly to blame. Not everyone knows that food banks do best with cash. On hearing it, many will give differently. But some will rationalize, and get indignant… and open their pantries yet again.[3] And in so doing, the givers of food signal to themselves and others that they are the sorts who give food. But they’re not doing as much good as they might. (Why do food banks accept it? Because a tiny, inefficient help is better than no help whatsoever. What are they going to do, turn you away?)

[Update: For another view of the Trussell Trust, see The well-trousered philanthropists: Tory party chums and food parcels for the poor, by Mel Kelly.]

It’s true that Trussell Trust foodbanks will give you a shopping list of useful products you can buy for them, and giving via that shopping list is more efficient than randomly donating food – Jason Kuznicki’s main ire is directed at people who donate the food left over in their storecupboard. Still, buying from a supermarket – whose staff may be on the Work Programme, or getting paid as apprentices because it’s legal now to pay below minimum wage providing you call this “apprenticeship”, or in other ways falling into the trap of in-work poverty – is not an efficient means of helping.

If you’ve grokked what I am saying here, you will also be a long way toward understanding why market institutions tend strongly toward efficiency. Giving cash gives the food bank a choice, and choices are valuable. They can buy nonperishable food, which is often cheap. Or they can buy perishables, which are only sometimes cheap, but generally healthier and tastier. They can tailor their needs to their clients’ allergies or cultural sensitivities. They can bargain hunt. They can save for future disasters. They can do lots of things with cash that you or I can’t even predict, let alone match.

Some will likely object that they weren’t going to eat the food in question anyway, so giving it to a food bank recoups the cost, at least a little. The problem is that the unwanted leftovers of an entire city’s pantries won’t add up to a nutritious or balanced stock of food. They’ll add up to a giant disposal problem. If you really want to recoup your loss, just suck it up and eat the food. Then make a list; never buy the offending products again.

As for myself: no, I’m still in the category of food bank donor rather than food bank recipient. I got offered a new contract, starting today, which I’m pretty excited about. Probably will be writing more about it later, but for now, just to let you know that I may be blogging a bit more lightly for a while.


I read Mel Kelly’s take on the Trussell Trust. She outlines a worrying set of connections between the Trust and the Conservatives. But for all that, I don’t actually think the people who founded the Trust were motivated by anything but oldfashioned Toryism – paternalistic concern for those worse off than themselves, food parcels rather than cash because food can’t be used “incorrectly”. But it does rather explain their easy reliance on donation by supermarket – an inefficient and expensive means of getting food for parcels. I think my money might go elsewhere, since there are other similiar charities in Edinburgh to give to.


Filed under About Food, Economics, Poverty

12 responses to “How not to help food banks

  1. Fingers crossed for your new job!

  2. Pingback: The Backbencher Bleeding the Economy Dry - The Backbencher

  3. Kirstine

    “I think my money might go elsewhere, since there are other similar charities in Edinburgh to give to.”

    Hello! I came across this website when I was scouring the internet trying to find a local foodbank in central edinburgh to volunteer at. At the moment, almost all I’ve come across is the Trussell Trust. Are there better charities and foodbank schemes in edinburgh that you feel do a better job? where would I be able to find them and get in touch?



  4. Peter Jones

    How can giving appropriate non-perishable food, which costs the charity nothing, be worse than giving money which the charity then has to use to buy food.
    Surely I can give more food than the charity can buy.

    • If you give the charity the same money you use to buy the appropriate non-perishable food, the charity can buy *more* food with the money you give than you can.

      Your giving food is absolutely better than giving nothing, and since most people are more likely to give food or to give nothing, food banks encourage donations of appropriate non-perishable food, which costs them only storage space.

      But giving them money is always better.

      • Peter Jones

        that is an assertion which I question.
        I would like to look at facts and figures

        • Go for it! Consider first of all:

          1) If you are registered to pay tax in the UK, and donate money to a charity, the charity can claim 25% back from HMRC for every pound you give, if you remember to GiftAid it. So every pound you give a Trussell Trust foodbank or any other registered charity enables that foodbank to buy 25% more with the pound you gave that you can buy.

          2) This is where you can do your own research – I don’t know where you live. Wherever you live, you will find there exist bulk-buy food warehouses which offer sometimes substantial discounts to any customer who buys regularly and in bulk. Some of them offer discounts on top of that to charities. But you can see, that the food bank will be able to buy substantial amounts for their food parcels, at a lower rate than you could buy.

          I’m sure you’ll find the research fascinating.

          • Peter Jones

            I know about gift aid.
            I apply it regularly to my donations.
            And I have given money to food bank charities twice in October, one Trussel.
            I’ll ring my local Bookers cash and carry
            and test your point.
            Also I have been a trustee of a uk wide charity as well as a couple of small local ones.
            I well understand why charities like cash

  5. Lissa Allcock

    Possibly also part of people’s motivation to give food via a supermarket rather than money is the conglomerate nature of some of said charities. I have a Charities Aid Foundation account for giving but can only give to the central Trussel Trust, whereas I want to support people local to where I live. If I send a cheque to my local TT does it go into their account or into central accounts out of which they are given an allocation, do you know?

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