06 February 2013

What if 60 million people turn to food banks in “rich” countries?

Here is a guest post by Ugo Gentilini, who recently published an IDS working paper on the topic of the usage of food banks in high income countries. I think the numbers will surprise you.  Highly recommended. 
By Ugo Gentilini 
How do people cope when they are laid off, family bonds are broken and welfare systems are tight? They often turn to food banks.

Food banks provide food to charities and other grassroots organizations for supporting people in need. As such, they tend to complement institutionalized, government social assistance programs by offering a free hot meal or a set of take-away, pre-packaged foods.

By all accounts, turning to food banks is a growing phenomenon. The BBC broadcasted an insightful documentary on the matter, while a recent article on the The Guardian defined 2012 as “the year of food banks”. This is a common trend emerging all across the West (see here, here, here and here).

But does the rise of food banks suggest high stress in societies, or a high level of responsiveness to needs? How many people turn to food banks in “high-income” countries? And what does this imply?

Those questions have motivated a new IDS working paper. According to latest data, almost 60 million people – equal to the entire population of France – are supported yearly by food banks in “rich” countries. This is a highly conservative estimate that represents over 7 percent of the surveyed countries’ population.

What does this imply? A number of thoughts sprinkle to mind.

First, by queuing for food handouts, people have made visible an often invisible problem. As such, those services have been an eye-opener for communities around the world. Yet, both governments’ safety nets and the food bank system seem overstretched. These dynamics pose serious concerns in terms of possible effects on social fabrics, inequality and stability.

Second, food banks as a whole help millions of people. However, they tend to do so in a fragmented, dispersed and localized manner. Overall, there is a need to better map out, assess and connect the universe of initiatives more robustly and systematically, particularly in Europe. Also, it might be required to strengthen and harmonize definitions, statistics and information systems across countries.

Third, the debate around the most appropriate providers of assistance – whether the state, NGOs, or combinations – is of great importance. Indeed, it is intimately linked to issues around rights, responsibilities and social contracts. However, such debate is no substitute for identifying and addressing the root causes of poverty and marginalization. In other words, food banks provide relief support to people affected by structural drivers of vulnerability – they are an instrument, not an end in themselves.

Fourth, the nature of food assistance in advanced economies differs remarkably from that in developing countries. Being food insecure in Europe officially means skipping “a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day”. In a number of developing countries, food insecurity is life-threatening and food assistance is about survival. However, food banks offer a wealth of practices that could be of interest to an array of contexts.

Let there be no doubt. Food banking is a sensitive and emotional topic. Accessing food banks is a tale of economic breakdown and socio-psychological distress. And the policy debates that it sparks are often rooted in competing views around the role of the state in welfare and development. Given the breath of those issues, the paper’s analysis is only scratching the surface. But the emerging scenario seems far more substantial, in terms of both magnitude of the phenomenon and its implications, than generally perceived. This would require elevating food assistance, and poverty more widely, among the top policy issues to be addressed in HICs.

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