While MPs feud over Brexit, food banks wonder how to feed the hungry

Why We Wrote This

When a country’s social safety net is failing vulnerable citizens, it makes radical changes in policy that much riskier. But that is just what Britain is facing with Brexit.

Sam Bradpiece
In the past, 20 clients in a day would be very busy for the food bank in Bognor Regis, England, says Sue White, the manager. But in 2019, it‘s normal.

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On one Tuesday afternoon, 20 clients visit the food bank in Bognor Regis, a small seaside town on the southern coast of England, seeking three days’ worth of emergency food supplies. Among them: pensioners, teenagers, and young families with children.

“In the past, this would have been an extremely busy day,” explains Sue White, the manager. But in 2019, she says, this volume is normal.

While poverty rates in the United Kingdom have gone down since the 1990s, government figures suggest an uptick in recent years. Food banks in Britain have become emblematic of the problem. A parliamentary report from January noted that food insecurity is growing, with U.K. levels “among the worst in Europe.”

Brexit could make things worse. Parliament has yet to ratify Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement – the deal negotiated with the European Union setting the terms for Britain’s exit from the bloc. Under his deal, Britain would no longer have access to a mechanism designed to facilitate frictionless trade between member states, decreasing food supplies.

It has been days since Dave, broad-shouldered and in his mid-30s, has eaten a proper meal. A delayed welfare payment means he has no money for food. With dull pain in his stomach etched onto his face, he hands over a voucher to a smiling volunteer and waits.

Dave, who requested his last name not be used, grew up in foster care. At the age of 18, he left home and started working in security, making money on the side as a boxer and cage fighter. After 10 years, he threw in the towel after a friend was killed in the ring.

Dave later found work in the construction trade, but received irregular shifts and wages. He briefly ended up homeless but has recently made it into charity-funded housing. Now, he is hungry.

Over the course of the same Tuesday afternoon, 19 other “clients” – as volunteers call them – visit the food bank in Bognor Regis, a small seaside town on the southern coast of England. Among them: pensioners, teenagers, and young families with children. Like Dave, they are here for three days’ worth of emergency food supplies.

“In the past, this would have been an extremely busy day,” explains Sue White, the manager. But in 2019, she says, this volume is normal.

Food banks are supposed to be a temporary fix for people in crisis. Guidelines from the Trussell Trust, the biggest food bank network in the country, state that clients should be limited to three emergency food pickups every six months. But for many, this is not enough. “We use our discretion,” says Ms. White.

While poverty rates in the United Kingdom have gone down since the 1990s, government figures suggest an uptick in recent years. Last year the United Nations noted that a fifth of the British population, or 14 million people, lived in poverty. “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity,” the U.N. report reads.

Food banks in Britain have become emblematic of the problem. Increasing fourfold since 2012, there are now more than 2,000 food banks in the country, delivering record numbers of emergency food supplies. A parliamentary report from January noted that food insecurity is growing, with U.K. levels “among the worst in Europe.”

Brexit could make things worse. Parliament has yet to ratify Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement – the deal negotiated with the European Union setting the terms for Britain’s exit from the bloc. Under Mr. Johnson’s deal, unlike the one negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, the U.K. would leave the EU customs union. Britain would no longer have access to a mechanism designed to facilitate frictionless trade between member states, which could decrease food supplies.

Now a general election has been planned for Dec. 12, and the result will shape Brexit’s likely path, though current polling suggests that any cancellation of Brexit is unlikely. But if Parliament cannot ratify Mr. Johnson’s agreement (or a replacement) before Jan. 31, the U.K. risks immediately crashing out of the EU without any deal. Most experts say that would be an economic and social catastrophe.

Karen Norris/Staff

The problem with universal credit

But food poverty in Britain long predates the 2016 Brexit referendum. Changes to the welfare system have been the main driver.

In 2010, the then-newly elected Conservative-led coalition implemented widespread austerity policies to address the public deficit. Welfare payments were heavily targeted. In 2013, the government launched a landmark reform known as universal credit (UC). It sought to streamline the welfare payments for housing, child support, unemployment, and more into one combined benefit.

As it was rolled out gradually across the country, the Trussell Trust found that 12 months after implementation, local food banks saw an average 52% increase in demand. Even a former secretary of state in charge of implementing UC acknowledged that the reform “could have led to an increase in food bank use.”

That was not the aim, says Henry Smith, a Conservative member of Parliament. He says the objective was “to make people better off in work than on welfare benefits.”

Dave is an illustration of how that objective is playing out. Next to the welcome desk at the Bognor Regis food bank, he sits patiently on the sofa. “It has not been a good experience at all,” he says of UC. A few more clients walk in. It always gets busier at closing time.

Dave is there because his payment did not arrive when he expected. He feels “depressed” and “lethargic.” He hopes to get a job as a personal trainer and has been studying for a diploma. If his interview goes well, the job will start in a couple of months.

The town where Dave waits is represented by Conservative MP Nick Gibb. Mr. Gibb visited a food bank in 2015. He posed for photos and told the Littlehampton Gazette that such facilities were “very important” for people in crisis.

But as an MP, Mr. Gibb has largely followed his party line, voting to cut welfare payments while supporting the slashing of taxes on bankers’ bonuses and capital gains. His office declined multiple requests for comment. The constituency is in one of the most pro-Brexit areas of Britain.

Dave did not vote, but supports Brexit. “The British people have had enough of Britain not being Britain,” he says. “There are so many foreigners over here getting benefits and houses while veterans are on the streets. We used to be the great British Empire. What are we now?”

Most economists do not share this enthusiasm. The Bank of England has warned that a no-deal Brexit could trigger a recession comparable to the 2008 financial crisis and that food prices could rise by 5% to 10%. Even if a deal with the EU is eventually approved by MPs, the government’s own forecast has warned of a negative impact.

“The pound has already got weaker, which makes anything imported [including one-third of the U.K.’s food] more expensive,” says Rob Joyce, deputy director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. “In the short term, an increase in prices would impact poorer people more.”

“To leave the EU without any consequences would be like trying to take an egg out of an omelet,” says Sir Peter Bottomley, a Conservative MP. “The people who voted to take us out of the EU knew they would take an economic hit.”

Food banks are alert to the danger. In a written statement, Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said, “Without government intervention to protect people already teetering on the edge, we are concerned that any form of Brexit will increase the demand for food banks in the future.”

Back at the food bank, Dave is handed four plastic bags full of canned beans, ultra-pasteurized milk, and other nonperishables. He has been threatened with penalties after missing an appointment with a work adviser and could receive reduced payment next time.

“We have a greedy government,” he says. “The people in power are the ones with all the money. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Stuffing his goods into a duffel bag and thanking the staff, Dave leaves the facility.

As he steps into the sun, Ms. White, the manager, calls after him: “Take care of yourself. I don’t want to see you in here again!” As with all the clients, she hopes his crisis is only temporary.

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