Food banks are a good thing, right? They certainly are the flavour of the month – essential to feed the hungry, fashionable and popular with donors, and highly visible with hundreds spread across the country and more opening each week. So how could something as innocent as a food bank hit the headlines?

The Trussell Trust, a food bank charity said it distributed 913,000 food parcels last year which is up from 347,000 the year before. Even taking into account a third of these parcels were given to repeat visitors, that means a 51 per cent rise in people using Trussell Trust food banks and the trust says “benefit payment delays were the main cause”.

Last weekend the Prime Minister, in his Easter message, praised the efforts of food banks and the Church in helping people have enough to eat as an example of ‘The Big Society’ at work.

The Bishop of Oxford John Pritchard joined the “End Hunger Fast” campaign in a National Day of Fasting on April 4 to stand in solidarity with Brits who go hungry and to ask the government to do something about “a national crisis”.

Oxford Mail:

  • Left to right: Oxford Food Bank Founders, David Cairns and Robin Aitkin at their premisies in Curtis Yard Industrial Estate, Botley

Most recently a group of Church leaders including Bishop John, took a letter about food poverty signed by 42 bishops and 500 clergy to David Cameron’s constituency office. “They were expecting us, we had phoned ahead.”

When the group arrived at the Witney office, the door was locked and three police officers turned up. Cameron’s own bishop was banned from the Prime Minister’s office.

What’s really happening here? How do food banks work and is there an increased demand for food from the hungry?

Oxford has two models of food banks. In the Community Emergency Food bank, CEF, based in Headington with the Bishop of Oxford as one of the patrons, food is collected from churches, schools and other interested organisations. The mostly tinned food, all non-perishable items – no fresh fruit, yogurts or frozen food – is divided into a parcel of nutritionally balanced food to last three days. ‘Clients’ are referred by their GP, health visitor, CAB, clergy or community workers and come on a Tuesday or Friday lunchtime to collect the food. Since the aim is to help people through a crisis, there is a general limit of three parcel collections per person/family.

Oxford Mail:

  • Sophie Countess of Wessex visited the Oxford Food Bank earlier this year

CEF has a few ground rules. They ask donors to ensure the food has a “sell by date” of at least six months in advance and is clearly marked like long life fruit juice or UHT/powdered milk and tins or packets of soup.

CEF clearly states they “are only able to help those who have access to cooking facilities”; so that would exclude the homeless.

The other model, the Oxford Food Bank, does not take food from individuals but collects from supermarkets food that is going to be thrown out. They distribute it to about 60 bona fide charities around the county in places such as Bicester, Abingdon, Wantage and Oxford. The homeless charities get a delivery every day; the smaller ones perhaps once or twice a week.

The Oxford Food Bank started almost five years ago delivering a few hundred pounds of food per week. Now they deliver two and a half thousand pounds worth of food each day. With 100 volunteers working from an eight hundred square metre depot in Curtis Yard off the Botley Road, they deliver food seven days per week. In bulk terms that comes to more than three tons per week.

The all-volunteer charity collects valuable, high quality products that are wholesome and fit for human consumption. These are past their “sell by date” but not their “use by date”.

The big chains supply them – Booker, Sainsbury, Aldi, Waitrose, Fresh Direct and Chef Direct. Most people who work in the food industry don’t like to see food go to waste, so the industry giants are delighted to help, and besides, donating to the Oxford Food Bank saves them money that would go for labour and vehicle and land fill costs.

The statistics for food waste provide food for thought. In the UK alone 15 million tons is thrown out each year, half by the shoppers and half by farmers, manufacturers and retailers.

Tesco offered a glimpse into this wasteland by admitting that their stores threw away almost 30,000 tons of food in the first half of last year.

The Oxford Food Bank works on the simple equation that food poverty and food waste can cancel each other out if you match the need of people with the surplus in the system.

But if food banks are proliferating, does that mean food poverty is expanding? Alison Webster advises the Oxford Diocese on social responsibility: “Adults and children are going hungry, and the use of food banks is growing exponentially. In this diocese all the indications are that low wages, under-employment, benefit reform and sanctions, and personal debt are the root causes.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Community Emergency Foodbank volunteer Elaine Parsons gives some kind words to a mother and her child

The Trussell Trust, which has around 400 food banks, said they were a “sticking plaster” because systems that should have worked haven’t.

Robin Aitkin, co-founder of the Oxford Food Bank, says there are no statistics on food poverty, so in his personal view it is impossible to tell if the need has gone up or come down.

“People have beliefs on this subject but no evidence. Just because there are more food banks opening each week with better marketing doesn’t mean there is increased demand.

“The food banks got bigger and more efficient and the public got to know about them through their higher visibility. If you look at Oxford Food Bank facts where five years ago we delivered say £200 of food per week and now it’s £2,500 per week, the conclusion isn’t necessarily that demand has gone up by 1,000 per cent. I think the whole debate has become hopelessly politicised. There is a real problem in discussing this issue because there is no reliable data.”