Significant numbers of churches are now involved in the provision of a food bank, but can more be done to tackle the causes of food poverty?
The majority (62 percent) of food banks [in the United Kingdom] have been running for less than two years, indicating the rapid growth of the food bank network in recent years. (PhotoBucket)
That's the challenge posed in a new report from the Church Urban Fund, a Christian organization in England working to address poverty, which found that four out of five churches are currently supporting food banks in one way or another.
This could be by collecting food, providing volunteers, managing a food bank or distributing vouchers. The majority (62 percent) of food banks have been running for less than two years, indicating the rapid growth of the food bank network in recent years.
The report focused on Church of England parishes, but its findings mirror figures from the Trussell Trust, the largest network of food banks in the United Kingdom, which saw food banks open at a rate of three a week last year.
This contributed to almost 350,000 people receiving a minimum of three days of emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks in 2012-13, 100,000 more than expected and significantly up from the 128,697 in 2011-12, and 26,000 in 2008-09.
There are now a total of 387 food banks in the Trussell Trust network, 17 of which are led by Baptist churches.
But as well as highlighting the high numbers of churches involved in food banks, the Church Urban Fund report also explored ways churches can work alongside others for long-term solutions to food poverty.
Citing a framework devised by international development experts, the report said that all poverty alleviation work falls into three areas: relief, rehabilitation and development.
As its research found that 30 percent of churches are running an organized activity to address one or more causes of food poverty, it said there were other areas for churches to examine.
"These survey results suggest that, if churches are to contribute to a long-term solution to food poverty, there is a need to rebalance church-based activity ... towards long-term work that tackles the underlying problems," the report concluded.
Debt advice and a credit crunch cookery course were cited as examples of rehabilitation and development work.
Commenting on the report, Chris Mould, executive chairman of the Trussell Trust, said tackling the root causes of poverty was "extremely challenging."
The report, he said, didn't pay proper attention to the "preventative impact" of food banks, which "stop a whole load of worse things happening," such as crime, housing loss and mental health deterioration.
He said the thousands of churches involved with food banks are already making "an enormous difference" in the U.K.
But ways in which churches can get involved, Mould said, include understanding the root causes of poverty at a macro level and supporting campaigns on these issues (such as the Living Wage) as well as understanding the major underlying drivers of poverty in their community.
For example, if entrenched unemployment is a major cause, churches could explore how to stimulate employment through social enterprises.
A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain and is used with permission.