Is it more efficient to give people money at the foodbank – rather than food?

In an age when Neo liberalism has reduced all public services to the sum of their profitable and efficient parts, there could be a case to apply the same logic to the vast, and i mean vast, attempts to solve poverty across the UK.

Because – frankly – the burn out rate of foodbanks is going to be soon.

And, with many nearing their 5 year mark. Questions about their effectiveness in reducing poverty, food poverty have to be asked. It is undoubted that their need is greater than ever. But is there a better way to reduce poverty, other than the stop gap of a variety of emergency foodstuffs, sanitary products. clothes, shoes even and other items for a 3 day period of time.

Think for a moment how much human costs are involved in running some of the most busy foodbanks in the UK, warehouses, store houses, travel, collection points, cooperation from supermarkets, publicity and ongoing requests for items – its quite a lot when its added up. For – a number, a large number of people. Seems so, far alot of effort. Then theres the few people in each foodbank who are paid as overall supervisors. Funding for which has to be obtained.

A question – why, in the beginning of setting up this kind of provision – would there not be a question about just giving people money, and not the items?

Would it not be far far more efficent, in terms of time, energy, resource, effort to just give people say £50 or £100 when they came to the foodbank. Wouldnt this be a better way of solving poverty?

Sounds bonkers doesnt it – but what money do in the hands of someone who was already going to a foodbank for them?

A number of things.

  1. It would give them dignity, control and choice – about what they would spend money on. This was brought home to me recently when i talked with a homeless young person who recalled how having enough money to choose her breakfast, and buy some make up was hugely important, compared to the well meaning who handed her a sandwich or half eaten packet of biscuits. Money gave her choice, dignity and something of a level playing field.
  2. Money would eradicate poverty. And giving it to people for free would have a significant effect. Yeah, free money. Where poverty is not just money – in the vast circumstances, not having any, and the stress of that has a deliberating effect. As, the film, I Daniel Blake showed.

But thinking about it further, why is it ok to give people free tins of food etc and not the money with which to buy these things themselves?

Is it because there is a thought that this money would be spent on things that arent food related, maybe even fags, drugs or drink? or -what is there are fights outside when people start being mugged if people found out that there were people leaving with £50 each time?

Both seem slightly judgemental dont you think? – but what about the evidence – given that food to food bank recipients has been helpful – but poverty really hasnt gone away anywhere.

Strangely, the evidence, from research, is that people who are given money who least expect it, and who need so many things, spend it on… the things they need, and at the same time the human difference is significant.

A project in London in 2009 on homelessness, there was a realisation that 13 known regulars had cost the economy £400,000 on rehab, social servs, police, court costs etc per year over a period of 6 years. So in 2009, instead of handouts, these 13 were given luxury treatment, of £3000, and were asked ‘what do you think you need?’ Though social workers were initially sceptical. The reality was that in most cases each of the 13 men were thrifty and only spend £800. The reality was that money empowered people, and all 13s lives were turned around. The total cost of the ‘experiment’ £50,000 per year, including social workers costs.

So, not only did the experiment work for the individuals, it was efficient. The Economist newspaper wrote : ‘The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless, might well be to give it to them’  (Example taken from ‘Utopia for Realists’, 2017, Bregman)

We assume that poor people can handle money (Bregman), assuming that they once had money and spent it all so they cant handle it, some may never had any in the first place. Money may have arrived in return for completion of assistance programmes and job clubs -but this still suggests that people who are given free money will make people lazy. The evidence is contrary. Give the poorest money and they will more than likely know what to do with it to make them better, healthier and escape the situation they find themselves in, rather than be told and have no agency.

A program in Uganda that gave every poor woman £150, realised that within 2 years each of their incomes increased by 100%. Bregmans thesis, is that free money works.

The big reasons that poor people are poor is because they dont have enough money, and it shouldnt come to any surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem (Charles Kenny, economist)

Im not going to labour the point too much further. I realise that there might be restrictions on charities giving money – but might those restrictions be actually preventing people for alleviating poverty, and doing more to keep the charity in ‘business’ and activity instead. The University of Manchester concluded that after researching the cumulative of 110 million families in money give away programmes, they realised that the benefits were:

  1. households out money to good use
  2. poverty declines
  3. there can be long term benefits for income, health and tax revenues (people who have money spend it)
  4. the programmes cost less than the alternatives.  (Bregman 2017,p 31)

So – what about the homeless and poor in the UK – well £200 free cash in Liberia to the most desperate only caused them to spend the money on food, clothes and a small business. So if they knew how to spend free money – so  might people in the UK in a similar situation. When the poorest receive free money – they tend to work harder ( Lancet, June 27 2009)

If efficiency really is the name of the game and councils want to save money – then it might be more efficient to give money away – and alleviate poverty poverty that way, given that poverty might, no is, the key factor in so many of the issues in society. Escaping (or feeling like alleviating)  poverty causes people to do costly damaging things, so, maybe its poverty that needs to be addressed. I wonder if  the most efficient way to get people out of financial poverty is to give people free money.

This isnt new by the way, I conclude with this:

Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness, it certainly destoys liberty and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult (Samuel Johnson, 1782)

Poverty isnt a lack of character… its a lack of cash.

Think of it another way – what would have happened in the last 10 years if food banks gave £50 per person rather than the food handouts instead… ?

Would this have been more positive or negative? – the truth is we dont know, but maybe theres got to be a change, and a change to make eradicating poverty in an efficient way. Currently its costing millions – and is it working?


Bregman, Rutger – Utopia for Realists, 2017

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

One thought on “Is it more efficient to give people money at the foodbank – rather than food?”

  1. Thought provoking piece as always James and can’t argue that giving people more money solves poverty. But this needs to be as a result of structural changes such as more equitable benefits and Living Wage, Fair Work etc. Not as a result of charity that will still be sporadic, involve a degree of judgement on who is deserving or not and leave the power with the givers.

    Liked by 1 person

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