Last year, 347,000 people, of whom 127,000 were children, received voluntary donations of food from food banks. That's 0.5 per cent of the population. Repeat visits mean this number might be smaller, as the Daily Mirror has pointed out. This tiny charitable gesture has prompted a political row drawing in the church, the state, the charity sector, the media and the public. It has led to a dedicated parliamentary debate, a battle between government and church involving an open letter from 27 bishops to the Prime Minister condemning levels of hardship and hunger in the UK, and an attack by a leading government minister on an anti-poverty charity for being "politically motivated". This is all quite shocking.
The situation piles further humiliation on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society and belittles the charitable impulse. For the majority of the world, gifts of food to the hungry are the most basic daily charitable act, often accompanied by other direct giving of money, clothes and basic necessities. In the UK we exclude such giving from our measures of generosity, confining our surveys largely to cash gifts to registered charities. But many other countries place equal importance on direct and in-kind giving.
In South Africa, an estimated 31 per cent of the population makes gifts of food and other items. In Mexico the street children survive through hand-outs of food from local traders and residents. How do the donors assess food need? Simply by gut instinct. No vouchers, no arguments about welfare rules or trends in average household spending on food.
Many food banks have been set up by churches as part of their mission to help the poor. They are supplied by donations and run by volunteers, and they express a strong charitable public impulse to help people at the sharp end of a tough economic climate and austerity policies. This is the impulse on which the UK charity sector relies daily to generate essential support from the public, and which many giving policies and initiatives have been aiming to promote for the past two decades.
Poverty relief is one of the oldest elements of charity, although it seems to have got a bit lost, and it rarely has a distinct appearance in surveys of charitable causes. It is the church that has found a new voice on poverty and the immediate impact of welfare change in the UK, and the sector needs to get fully behind it. It is not very easy to give personal direct help to the poor in our society, but the food banks have found a way. We should be celebrating this and exploring how to capture and build on a new wave of public awareness and concern.
Let's create more banks for the many things the poorest are denied, such as personal computers for a generation of children born on the wrong side of the digital divide. The daily trips to food banks are the tip of the iceberg.
Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School