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Cost of living crisis: faith and food banks combine to tackle destitution and its causes

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.


The Trussell Trust wants food banks in its network to reduce the need for their services. Robert Wright finds out why the trust regrets they still distribute so much food.
A man stands in front of a food bank's shelves of cereals and boxes labelled by foot type.
Howard Wardle at Eastbourne's food bank.

When Howard Wardle was making plans to set up a food bank in Eastbourne, in East Sussex, he received little support from his fellow church leaders. Speaking in the industrial estate warehouse that has been the food bank’s headquarters since 2017, Wardle recalls how at a meeting called to discuss the idea he largely encountered bafflement. At the time, Wardle was pastor of the town’s Community Church. 

“They said, ‘There isn’t a need in the town – you’re wasting your time doing it’,” Wardle says of the meeting in 2011. 

Wardle nevertheless received encouragement from Eastbourne’s Citizens’ Advice Bureau, from the major of the local Salvation Army congregation, the local authority’s social services – and the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest organiser of food banks. The food bank, of which Wardle is now chief executive, last year handed out 280,000 meals. 

Yet for Wardle and the Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s national chief executive, it is a matter of regret that its members are distributing so much food – organisations affiliated with the Trussell Trust handed out 2.99mn parcels in the year to March 2023. The figure was a 37 per cent increase on the year before, a rise largely down to the cost of living crisis started by the spikes in energy and food prices following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

“It’s incredibly worrying and upsetting that so many people – more people – are having to come to food banks,” Revie says. 

Workers at the Eastbourne Foodbank and others nationally are following a strategy of campaigning for policies that seek to ensure no one needs to seek emergency food support. They also employ staff who help clients to navigate the benefits system, prepare for work or take other steps to find a permanent solution to their problems. 

“We were absolutely resolute that enough is enough. We needed to do whatever we needed to do to reduce the number of people needing to come to food banks.” 

Emma Revie

The Trussell Trust centrally provides organisational support for affiliated food banks but deliberately does not undertake functions such as purchasing food. 

Revie says it adopted the strategy of trying to put itself out of business five years ago, after experiencing significant growth in demand for its services. The trust was founded in 1997 in Salisbury by Carol and Paddy Henderson, a Christian couple. Christian principles have been core to the trust’s operations ever since. 

“We reached a decision point where we either had to accept that this situation was likely to increase and would always be needed or we had to decide that that was not acceptable and change the way we thought about our work,” Revie says. 

The trust recognised how inadequate food parcels were to the fundamental needs that member food banks were seeing among clients, she adds. 

“The reason people are coming to food banks is they don’t have enough money to afford the essentials,” Revie says. “They know it’s not going to put credit on the gas meter. They know it’s not going to pay for school shoes.” 

The organisation had to decide whether it accepted as inevitable that so many people needed its services or would reorient itself towards working to end that need, she adds. 

“We were absolutely resolute that enough is enough,” Revie says. “We needed to do whatever we needed to do to reduce the number of people needing to come to food banks.” 

“We’re not just here to get people on benefits. If we think they can work, we try to encourage people to get into work.” 

Robert Crockford

In Eastbourne, the strategy of reducing dependence on food banks has been in place from the start, according to Wardle. 

“When we started, we felt it was one thing to have a food bank giving out food but another to have people not need to come to food banks,” he says. 

After receiving some grant funding, the food bank took on staff to help clients to resolve their financial problems and ensure they were receiving all the welfare benefits to which they were entitled. 

“We built a welfare benefits team, a debt team and a medical benefits team so that we could help clients,” Wardle says. 

Robert Crockford, the food bank’s senior advocacy officer, says he helps food bank clients to navigate issues such as the two-child limit and the overall benefits cap that restrict the amount benefits recipients can receive. 

The two-child limit stops parents from receiving child benefit for any more than two children if the additional children were born after 2017. The benefit cap - £283.71 for a single person living outside Greater London – was introduced in 2013. It limits the total amount a person or family can receive from the system. 

Crockford explains that he seeks to help clients to explore whether they count as disabled, a carer or have some other status that might enable them to receive higher benefits. 

The group also works with People Matter, a charity that helps to prepare people for work. 

“We’re not just here to get people on benefits,” Crockford says. “If we think they can work, we try to encourage people to get into work.” 

Revie bemoans the overall inadequacy of the benefits system, pointing out that many recipients of Universal Credit – the main income-support benefit for most people who are unemployed or on low incomes in the UK – cannot afford food. 

“When almost half the people on that benefit are unable to afford food, something systematically is failing,” she says. “So do you tackle the symptoms or do you tackle the actual problem?” 

That emphasis on tackling problems is clear at another food bank affiliated with the trust – in Kingston, on the south-western edge of London. 

Ian Jacobs, director of Kingston Foodbank, says his organisation works closely with Citizens’ Advice to try to develop permanent solutions for people seeking help. 

“We do deep-dive investigations into people’s circumstances to try to see if we can get more money into people’s pockets,” he says. 

Kingston Foodbank currently operates six foodbank centres and one pantry, where referred clients can select and buy reduced-price food. Jacobs says he would like one day to reverse the proportion, so that it operates six pantries and one food bank. 

Jacobs, a member of the Doxa Deo Community Church, an independent evangelical church, also makes it clear that many volunteers are working at the food bank out of Christian conviction. 

“We’re always open to pray with clients,” he says. 

Revie says the trust is “deeply rooted” in the local churches. 

“Many of our volunteers and staff are motivated in the work that they do by their Christian faith,” she says. “Our values of community, compassion, dignity and justice are deeply rooted in the Christian faith.” 

Revie points out that the trust was founded by Christians and that its network grew through approaches by individual churches to the trust. 
"We as an organisation work with people of all faiths and none and we certainly support people of all faiths and none," she says. "But we are deeply rooted in the local churches and many of our volunteers and staff are motivated in the work that they do by their Christian faith,” she says. 
Faith has a "very special role to play" in the trust's work, Revie adds. 
 “Our values of community, compassion, dignity and justice are deeply rooted in the Christian faith," she says. 

“We don’t believe there should be food banks in today’s society,” Jacobs says. “That’s why we do all the extra work to make sure people aren’t dependent on the food bank.” 

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4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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