An issue that was raised at every one of our four hustings during the election campaign was that of food banks.
There was a measure of surprise when I stated my view that food banks were a proper and welcome response by voluntary organisations and individuals to a need that exists and which it is difficult for state agencies to address.
There never was a golden age when the need that food banks address did not exist. When families or individuals experience a crisis they make use of food banks because they need to, and because they are available. In times before food banks existed they would, in the first instance, rely on the wider family for help, and in desperation they might even have recourse to loan sharks. Food banks address a need, and we should thank those volunteers who give their time, money and substance.
We have a more generous welfare system than most comparable affluent economies. We also have a number of short term and emergency benefits including Discretionary Housing Payment. It is significant that government figures show that most food bank users have not applied for a Discretionary Housing Payment in the 6 months prior to their referral to a food bank.
The explanation may be that they were simply unaware of the benefit, or that the crisis that caused them to be referred to a food bank arose at such short notice.
Whatever the particular crisis that an individual may face, there will inevitably be a delay in the response of the welfare system whilst the bona fides of any applicant for benefits are established and checked, into that ‘space’ the existence of a food bank is an important contribution.
For longer term reliance on food banks we need to ask more profound questions as to why people find themselves in such a situation. Of course, this will include assessments of the adequacy of the level of benefit payments -particularly where housing costs are concerned. The easy answer however, is always to address the problem with more money, but I do believe that we need to get at more a fundamental understanding of how recipients of benefits actually spend the welfare payments that they receive.
The shocking statistic is that one in five of our children is obese by the time they leave primary school, and that this disproportionately affects those children in the lowest household incomes.
To put it bluntly (and in the terms that elicited shouts of protest at the hustings): the poorest are amongst the fattest.
The conclusion that I draw is that their families need, in addition to welfare payments, help with how to shop more cost effectively and healthily.