I love cheese and you ?Food banks are a recent phenomenon in the UK, with the first only established in 2000. Yet there has been a clear upward trend since 2009, correlating to the recession, a rise in un(der)employment, and lower incomes and higher costs of living decreasing the affordability of food. Why are these figures disturbing and what are the implications? This thesis examines these issues by looking at political drivers associated with the expansion food banks in the United Kingdom, drawing on the cases of two Oxford-based food aid providers.

Food banks are defined as not-for-profit organizations providing food to those in poverty, yet they are increasingly standing in for food aid and poverty alleviation policy and services provided by the government. This is largely attributed to current economic circumstances and welfare ‘benefit changes or delays.’ More recent sanctions and conditions for welfare adopted under the coalition government are often a root cause of these benefits delays that have driven people to food banks.

A more contentious point with implications for the development of policy, is that food bank use is becoming an ingrained component of welfare provision, particularly at a local level. At the heart of this is that the rise of food banks is shifting the paradigm of welfare provision from state aid to charity. The author argues that reliance of both the state and individuals on food banks, and a lack of suitable alternatives, could be leading to entrenchment of their use – essentially the expectation that they provide means of addressing food poverty needs and reducing the impetus to develop robust food policy. This entrenchment is attributed to political inaction and not specific policy changes. Ironically, the evidence from research internationally demonstrates that informal food assistance is far less effective in relieving food insecurity than government-run programmes and policies.

While the thesis references the longer history of food banks in the United States and Canada to exemplify the current trajectory of the UK, it also discusses the situation closer at hand, including two Oxford-based entities as contrasting cases of food aid provision. Community Emergency FoodBank Oxford (CEF) provides food to community members in need, operating on referral system that limits the number of ‘vouchers’ to the food bank in a given time period. In contrast, the Oxford Food Bank (OFB) distributes surplus food to organizations that address issues of poverty and social exclusion. Yet the impact of these food banks and overall efficacy of food poverty alleviation efforts suffers from a lack of interaction with and financial support from local authorities

Ellis-Petersen, M. 2014. Free Cheese Only Comes in Mousetraps: Exploring Food Bank Use in the UK. Dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of BA in History and Politics. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Photo credit: “I Love Cheese And You?”, Alice Popkorn