The first time Miguel heard of food banks was when current UK prime minister David Cameron was asked about them during the election's first televised leaders' interview contest on March 26.
After British journalist Jeremy Paxman opened the Channel 4 interview by forcefully questioning why almost 1 million people visited food banks last year, the prime minister faltered. "Cameron didn't have an answer; he didn't know," Miguel said. "So that pissed me off."
Now hunched over a table in a London food bank, Miguel speaks quietly but with conviction. He lost his job a few years ago and now he's heavily in debt. The 50-year-old asked VICE News to call him by a pseudonym because "it's embarrassing to have to come here."
In the discourse and debate around next week's general election, food banks have become a palpable point for campaigners and analysts to launch commentary on austerity and welfare reform — but the exact number of them, along with the aims and objectives of their volunteers, hasn't been fully quantified.
Miguel told VICE News that when he heard the mention of food banks he was struck by a realization that they were the solution he was looking for. "Basically, I needed some food," he said simply.
In the TV interview, Cameron did eventually respond to Paxman's question. "Look, there has been an increase in food bank use," he said. "That's partly because of the difficulties we've faced as a country but also because we've changed the rules. The previous government didn't allow job centers to advertise the existence of food banks. They thought that would be bad PR."
Cameron added: "Obviously I want fewer people to be using food banks and I want more people to have the security of a job, but we have created 1,000 jobs for every day this government's been in office."
Hammersmith and Fulham food bank is located in a leafy suburb of West London. It opens for two and a half hours, two days a week, and has been operative since 2010. When you walk inside several volunteers step forward to greet you. "It's important that people feel welcome," one of them said.
Alison Inglis-Jones is a trustee at the Trussell Trust — a Christian charity that serves as the largest organizer of food banks in the UK. She gestured proudly around the room, which is situated inside a church. "The idea is not to have a setup where people feel ashamed," she told VICE News. "It's difficult enough for people coming in anyway. This is the last step for a lot of people. The last thing we want to do is to make them feel judged."
Proffering a cup of coffee, Inglis-Jones described the food bank experience as a "social interaction." "Loneliness is a really big deal in this city," she said.
People can't come in without a voucher, according to Inglis-Jones, though she acknowledged that in some of their food banks, "it's not as tight a model as we would like." She added, however: "I feel really strongly that we feed people. I can't turn away hungry people, I just can't do it."
Several food bank visitors in Hammersmith told VICE News that they hadn't brought in vouchers and instead had been given them by two debt advisors sitting at a table in one corner of the room. The advisors come from Crosslight and are "sponsored by Martin Lewis, the money-saving expert." Lewis has given the Trust a "six-figure sum in six food banks across the UK to pilot debt advice," Inglis-Jones said.
The widely-quoted 1 million figure includes repeat visitors, though Inglis-Jones said that 66 percent of arrivals are single-users only. "They're in a crisis, and we need to help them through that crisis," she said. "I think it's that crisis that tips people over the edge, so they can be just sort of getting by and then the fridge breaks down, the dishwasher, or there's an accident, someone's out of work, and it tips people over the edge because most people will do anything rather than come here."
A report called Feeding Britain was prepared by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK and released in December. This noted that the main causes of hunger in the country are delays and errors in the processing and payment of benefits, the poor being charged disproportionate charges for utilities, and a large proportion of already poor families affected by crippling debt.
"This simple but devastating fact that hunger stalks this country should confront each of the main political parties with a most basic and fundamental political challenge," the introduction to the report read.
Spencer Thompson, senior economic analyst at the Institute for Public Policy Research, told VICE News that part of the reason food banks have seen such a major increase in usage is "fairly simple household finances."
"We know that wages have been performing really poorly when we compare them to inflation. Since the recession most hourly wages across the whole repertoire have fallen by about five percent," he explained. While wages have decreased, Thompson stated that the price of food has gone up by almost 25 percent on average since the beginning of the downturn. "Similarly rents have also gone up by about 15 percent. Some of the key costs have gone up and they haven't been matched by earnings."
Thompson also said that certain decisions made over the past five to seven years had also unduly impacted on the poor, including the rise in the use of controversial zero-hour contracts, where employers offer jobs with no fixed hours and no benefits.
In terms of the range of people who visit the banks, Inglis-Jones said she would say that "there's no stereotype. Believe you me, I've seen the world come through — it's like accident and emergency. I've really seen the full spectrum of people, [including the] upper middle class — that was a domestic violence one — and people who are struck with mental health issues, the whole thing. I would really hesitate to say that there's a stereotype or a demographic. I would really hesitate because it can happen to anyone."
The Trussell Trust is currently running around 430 food banks — many of which are a "work in progress," according to Inglis-Jones, who estimates that between 20 to 25 people visit the Hammersmith and Fulham branch each day it is open. The Christian group is not the only provider of similar services. Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, claimed last year that the Trussell Trust runs just 37 percent of active food banks in the UK.
Inglis-Jones said that the banks are meeting a need that is clearly there. "It's choices isn't it? A lot of people are making choices: Heat [an apartment] or eat? I mean that's quite a choice in the middle of winter, and so is that really a choice? I don't really see that as a choice, I think that's sort of frankly appalling. What has been suggested more is that people are spending their money on cigarettes and widescreen TVs."
She said that she believes there will always be a role for the voluntary sector, something she's "not unhappy" with. "That's the nature of the voluntary sector," she added, "we pick up people who have fallen through every net."
However, Inglis-Jones said she believes that a few tweaks to the system would make a great deal of difference. "But they have not listened to us, they have not engaged."
Another visitor, 32-year-old Jerome, told VICE News that he's lived in West London all his life. Recently, he's moved into a new hostel near the food bank. "I came because it's getting towards the end of the month and money's really, really tight," he said. "I heard about it through a friend of mine that was a social worker." This is his "fourth or fifth" time visiting.
Jerome said he's been following the election campaigns closely: "I try to watch as much politics as I can." He's planning on voting Labour, and from any new government he'd hope for "better jobs with more money, maybe without the zero-hour contract thing." Before he returned to study plumbing and electronics, Jerome was on a zero-hour contract which he said was tough.
He praised the Trussell Trust's efforts. "The food's great. They give you exactly what you ask for, and they give you toiletries as well which is great. Also if you have any pets they give you food for your pets."
Jerome believes that anyone who calls food bank visitors "scroungers" is misinformed. "I take no note because I put it down as surviving. I mean especially if you're living independently by yourself I call it more of a surviving tactic."
"People believe if you are being paid your jobseeker's allowance you are not in a crisis, but that is not true," Miguel said. The Latin American-born British citizen's debt means that any money that he receives is paid directly out again. "A crisis," Miguel said, "is individual. It varies from person to person. But there should be a wider criteria. The definition should be wider."
Any government, Miguel said, needs to be "sensitive." "I think the government should be more open to the existence of this. They have to assign more relevance to people who are in crisis and they cannot close their eyes and pretend that these people do not exist."
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