Cash grants for struggling households can turn the tide on the growing use of food banks
As more and more people find themselves unable to afford the essentials, now is a critical time to assess the best ways to provide dignified support to people facing financial crisis.
None of us wants to live in a society where food banks are so entrenched in our communities it's considered normal to have to turn to charity to avoid hunger. Fundamentally, we need to challenge the notion that charities providing emergency food is the solution.
What is the answer? After several months of investigation, our APPG concluded that a “cash-first” approach would help make sure no one has to turn to a food bank. This means cash grants being readily available as part of the local authority crisis support offer, so people facing hardship can buy their own food and cover other bills as well.
While food banks meet an immediate need for many families, the evidence is clear: they are not an appropriate solution to destitution
Cash provides choice and flexibility so people can determine the best way to resolve their crisis for themselves. Our research also indicated this approach helps prevent people experiencing repeated financial crises.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have resulted in record levels of need for food banks, and yet these recent crises follow a longer-term trend of increasing need for emergency food. Food banks in the Trussell Trust network alone reported an 81 per cent increase in need in the five years between 2016-17 and 2021-22.
We have heard how food banks have become focal points in communities, providing vital support and signposting to further help. But while food banks meet an immediate need for many families, the evidence is clear: they are not an appropriate solution to destitution.
People who had needed a food bank told us about the deep feelings of s
hame and stigma they feel when forced to turn to charity for food. Someone working at a food bank in the West Midlands told us: “However welcoming we make our centres, people are still embarrassed to come, embarrassed that they cannot afford to feed their family, embarrassed that they have to ‘rely on a hand-out’ in the words of a client I have spoken to just today.”
While food banks provide a lifeline, they are a sticking plaster fix, not always accessible to everyone who needs them, and yet so in demand that volunteers and community organisers are stretched, exhausted and often worried donations might dry up.
Cash-first has been proved to work. We heard evidence from Leeds City Council who have run a pilot scheme where they provided people with cash grants rather than emergency food parcels. The scheme provided 187 grants, supporting 283 people and 91 per cent of people who took part said their finances had improved while receiving the cash support. The independent evaluation showed that people used the money primarily to buy food, gas and electricity. Since the pilot, Leeds City Council has said they will embed a cash-first approach in their local crisis support offer.
Crisis cash payments are no panacea though, and work best alongside wider advice and support to tackle the root causes of hardship. The ultimate goal should be to prevent people from reaching financial crisis, but we also know there is an urgent need to get crisis support right for everyone who needs it.
The government has invested significant sums in the Household Support Fund (HSF) since October 2021 for local authorities and devolved governments to use to help people struggling to afford essential items. However, the HSF has been characterised by short-term funding rounds and frequent changes to the guidance on how it should be used.
Ministers should now seize the opportunity to review the outcomes of this HSF investment and develop a long-term strategy for local crisis support, backed by long-term funding. This strategy should be governed by the principles established by our inquiry for ensuring crisis support is effective and dignified, and be clear that nobody should have to turn to a food bank as a first port of call.
Only by giving people the agency to buy their own food, and other essentials, when faced with financial crisis will we start to see fewer people forced to turn to food banks. This change is crucially needed to turn the tide on food banks becoming the norm in our society.
Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife. Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. They are both members of the APPG for Ending the Need for Food Banks.
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