Food banks can only plug the holes in social safety nets | Olivier De Schutter

From Global development | The Guardian Wed Feb 27 2013, 09:00:03

Donation-dependent, food banks aren't a 'normal' part of support for those in need, but they help identify flaws in social protection

A surge in food bank usage does not necessarily mean that our societies are "broken". But nor does it mean that our social safety nets are simply doing their job and that this is business as usual. So what does this surge in the UK and across the developed world tell us? Surprisingly little - until the figures are broken down.

Unlike in developing countries, food banks in Europe or North America do not represent a last line of defence against starvation. Instead, a food bank may represent a final frontier of social protection for those with little or no disposable income. For someone suffering long-term unemployment it may be a temporary substitute for income support that cannot, or can no longer, be accessed; for the working poor, the numbers of which have been shamefully swelling over the past 20 years in all OECD countries, it may represent a means of avoiding cutting back on other essentials such as clothing or medicines and keeping food on the family table.

Food banks should not be seen as a "normal" part of national safety nets. They are not like cash transfers or food vouchers, to which people in need have a right under developed social security systems. Food banks depend on donations, and they are often run by volunteers: they are charity-based, not rights-based, and they should not be seen as a substitute for the robust social safety nets to which each individual has a right.

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