Food aid is sickening our society

Food in Community is pushing for a radical departure from the giving of food aid by joining the call for a cash-first system.

We’re led to believe that what we feed ourselves is a personal choice, and that by making the right choices this will be life sustaining, help our mental and physical wellbeing, and lessen the burden on an overstretched health service. 

At the same time, the way our food is generally produced has become so industrialised, cheapened and denatured that only those with the luxury of time and financial security can temper this with more healthy and nutritious alternatives, and ‘enjoy’ processed food as an occasional indulgence or convenience rather than as a necessity. 

Furthermore, during the pandemic there have been several instances contradicting what the government says we should eat and the food given out as emergency provisions, i.e. to those having to self-isolate or the typical Covid response pallets of tinned meat, pasta meals and other often ultra-processed high calorie foods destined to food bank users. The quality of the food hasn’t matched the spiel. 

According to recent scientific research (mentioned in the BBC programme What are we feeding our kids?) by Dr Kevin Hall of the National Institutes of Health, one in five people’s diets are made up of 80 per cent ultra-processed food. Evidence shows that our brains are being hardwired to want this food, and this leads on average to a daily 500 calorie increase.

Food In Community Produce Sorting.jpg
There is a gap between what the Government says we should eat and what is distributed as emergency food. 

This surplus food is part of a ‘profit above all else’ subsidised food industry that is able to dictate and offload inferior food. Could this be perceived as a cynical act by the government aimed at those most in need?

People on low incomes are statistically more prone to malnutrition, obesity and diabetes as poor quality, additive ridden, fat and sugar-based foods are often the cheapest options for cash-strapped households not able to make healthier choices.

Food in Community’s activities over the past eight years have included supplying food aid organisations, such as food banks, with fresh vegetables and fruit otherwise lacking in their recipient parcels. Post-Covid we have seen an extraordinary rise in demand for food assistance. 

Even though we try to make these food boxes as attractive as possible, giving these free and to the recipient’s doorstep, we believe this isn’t an ideal option – far better to give people the choice of what to buy and eat.

As such, Food in Community (supported by IFAN and trialled already in Scotland and soon in Cornwall) is pushing for a radical departure from the giving of food aid by joining the call for a cash-first system. Fundamental to this is earlier referrals for help and guidance before a household’s financiers become critical. 

Food purchasing vouchers for the shop of choice could be issued as a stop gap while problems are being resolved or when claiming benefit, while applications are being processed. 

Giving people back the power to make food choices for themselves by having enough money in their pockets would lessen the ignominy around food aid and help restore confidence. Professional help to sort the problems that might have led to situations of financial poverty could free up more time for considering healthier lifestyles, improving health and wellbeing, and eventually even forcing the large food producers and government to seriously rethink food aid, rather than sicken our society.


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  1. I can buy into this. It just makes no sense to not match the best health standards, with people in dire need. To take that further – and let it be an affordable choice (if I’ve understood the idea you have, correctly) then your plan can only be applauded.

  2. The notion you talk about is totally right in principal and can be seen as our societies ‘double standards’ on food quality. However, it seems impossible to separate out the issue of food (however important it is) and the circumstances of the recipients of ‘food charity’ in whatever form it takes.
    Everyone I have spoken to when delivering ‘food parcels, bags and boxes’ during the past 2+ years of lockdowns, has their own specific reasons for needing our help, so although a generic one size fits all food delivery may seem overly simplistic we have no idea what each person needs or wants?
    Often from conversations people are making incredible efforts to make the food last (till the next box) but we don’t know if they can cook food; by having the cooking skills, cooking utensils, energy to power cooking or more importantly the money required to pay for this energy?
    Often people in these circumstances (if only temporary) lead chaotic and dysfunctional lives, making poor life choices, as we probably would also do.
    These circumstances may be analogous to giving money, as a form of charity, to a homeless person on the street. If I give them £5 0r £10 how do I know they will spend this money wisely (whatever that means for them) and not on booze, fags or drugs, cheap takeaway food, gambling etc…?
    I hope none of this sounds patronising but if we had a credible safety net for the poorest in society and not a benefit system that doesn’t work for those it’s supposed to serve would be a good starting point.

    1. So I have a friend who works for The Trussell Trust, a leading food charity. She says that while the distribution of food is a large part of their work, arguably some of the most important work they do is getting people access to social security, registering people for access to housing, liaising with universal credit about late payments etc. It’s incredible that benefit delays and changes are some of the primary reasons for coming to a food bank.

      I see comparisons between this sort of work by food banks and food waste charities that redistribute retail and industry food that would be otherwise wasted. It could be perceived that their work is but a sticking plaster on a gaping crack in the system. To what extent do these companies justify these companies carrying on with the status quo and continuing to create more food waste. In the same way that food banks make it possible for the government to carry on with an extremely poor social welfare net that systematically drives people to charities in order to feed themselves?

      If there were no food banks, would the government have to step in and take action?

    2. Giving people enough money to live on Beveridge stated, in his Social Insurance and Allied Services Report was the foundation of a good life, and that health, education and sanitation could not be improved without it. This sentiment formed the foundation of the welfare state legislation passed during and shortly after the Second World war. At the same socially creative time the government created communal kitchen restaurants serving 600,000 very inexpensive meals a day and not a food bank in sight!

  3. In addition to problems mentioned by ‘Leeks are wicked’ above is that it takes an enormous amount of mental effort to plan and prepare meals, on top of knowing how, and if you already of lots of stress because of financial insecurity and so forth, it’s just impossible! As an example, all of us have felt the strain of keeping on top of things during the pandemic, and sales of home-delivered recipe boxes have gone through the roof. But if you don’t have the money to buy these, what are your options? Even if you’re given food vouchers and trusted to buy what you want, but your other life stresses are in the way, what are you going to buy? Ready meals, takeaways, and anything in a packet that you don’t have to mess with…which are largely very unhealthy (there are some healthier ready meal options, but priced beyond the means of many of those struggling. And let’s be honest – they don’t taste nearly as good as the unhealthy stuff!).

    I have many years of practice and knowledge on how to cook healthy meals with lots of vegetables, and I have a steady job and I’m sure much less stress than people using food aid, but still some weeks I can’t cope and have to pause my veg box order and instead get meal boxes. I know I’m very privileged to be able to do so! But if you don’t have the knowledge and skills for what to do with the veg – either in the store to buy or that is given to you in your food aid box – let alone the mental energy to find recipes etc, then what? If you’re giving out veg or vouchers then I think you should also give cooking demonstrations, or at least recipe ideas. But first talk to the people receiving the food or vouchers to find out what sorts of meals they’d like/be willing to make, it will vary based on cultural background and so forth. But don’t guess or make decisions for them or your well-intentioned veg will end up in the bin or stay in the store shelves.

    1. Governments have had to find solutions to this before – this BBC article looks at the network of public cafeteria known as “national kitchens” the Ministry of Food created in 1917.

      Similar to today, a core network of grassroots community kitchens run by charities had already begun responding to food poverty and created community canteens. The government of the day then used this idea, plus the network of existing volunteers, to make this a national scheme of subsidised cooked meals in canteens that each fed up to 2000 people a day.

      Although that was pre welfare state, over 100 years later food and fuel poverty are still affecting so many, both in or out of work. As you highlight, there are also mental and physical health barriers that can make cooking from scratch difficult.

      With the increase in homelessness and lack of social housing, many are put in temporary accommodation for a long time with no kitchen, and are not allowed to cook in their rooms, or very minimal cooking facilities.

      It is scary that poverty levels are rising so much in the UK that a wartime initiative is now being suggested as a way to combat this in 2021. We need a reimagining of our food systems that is sustainable environmentally and socially, with children learning to love cooking real food from a young age at school, and access for all to healthy meals whatever our circumstances.

  4. Am I out of date with this ?

    Many folk who are foodbank users may live in places that are not only far from a potential workplace but also distant from any form of shop other than a convenience store – not renowned for wholesome food for sale. They may also be on a PAYG power card and subject to the inequities of Universal Credit and private rental accommodation and thereby have other just as important demands on cash.

    Foodbanks could be seen as a way for those of us somewhat ‘better off’ but still politically disempowered to feel that at least we can do something.

    It is a reflection on the state of our society that fundamental rights re: housing, food and financial security are not anywhere near a priority…I will not dwell on that simply because , sometimes, it is too much for me to deal with…

    I was humbled by the actions of Camborne, Pool and Redruth (CPR) Foodbank as featured on Cornwall with Simon Reeve on BBC2. To watch the whole of that episode was an education on rural depravation in a part of the world that would otherwise be seen as idyllic ( when it doesn’t rain!) for a me as a privileged holidaymaker.


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