“Today I visited [insert supermarket name here] to donate to the local foodbank.”

A variation of this generic message was tweeted by a series of Conservative MPs at the start of December. More often than not they were accompanied by a cheery picture of said MP next to bags of food.

Such a PR misfire illustrated more than a tin ear about the realities of foodbanks, especially considering their government has been in power and responsible for austerity policies hitting the poorest hardest. Celebrating the work of volunteers, great; encouraging donations, superb. But shouldn’t MPs in power be focused on creating policy that removes the need for foodbanks in the first place?

Over 1.3 million emergency food supplies were handed out by the Trussell Trust last year. One third of these were to make sure children didn’t go hungry. Figures from the charity also show that foodbanks are busier than ever, and this is the most critical time of year. The network provided 159,388 three-day emergency food supplies during December 2017, of which 65,622 went to children.

That was nearly double the monthly average for the 2017-18 financial year. But why the sudden increase? According to the Trussell Trust, cold weather “heaps pressure” on to people already in crisis and the charity points to Universal Credit in driving the rise in foodbank use, after reporting a 13 per cent increase in the number of packages given out last year. The minimum five-week wait for payment for those moving on to the controversial new benefits scheme, coupled with colder weather, has left families unable to cover the basic costs of living such as heating bills, food and other essentials.

With Universal Credit continuing to be rolled out across the country, more and more people are being caught out by the delays built into the system and have nowhere else to turn. Renfrewshire Council has even announced £30,000 extra in ‘foodbank funds’ to cope with the demand.

Everyone knows that foodbanks exist in Britain, but not everyone knows how they work or much about the people forced to use them. This includes, one suspects, many of the tweeting MPs. So let’s set the record straight.

Who uses foodbanks?

foodbank2

Often left out of the conversation are the people who come through the doors. We wanted to find out the reality of who they were. We asked Suzanne Hudson, who volunteers at a church-run foodbank in Newcastle, to tell us who visited on one Friday morning, November 23.

“Our foodbank is situated in the Elim Church and supplies areas such as Heaton, Byker and Walker and is open twice a week. We try and spend time chatting to them while their food is being packed, and they are given a hot drink, cake and biscuit, or if they obviously haven’t eaten recently, a Pot Noodle. We have such a wide range of people:

  • An elderly asylum seeker from Afghanistan with her daughter who spoke for her, as the benefits that they are receiving are not enough to cover rent and food.
  • A middle-aged man who has a second-hand furniture shop that is not taking enough money to cover rent and council tax, and so there is not enough left for food for the family.
  • A young man with mental health issues who has spent most of his adult life in prison for petty crimes. He is not able to cope with life outside and is not coping with the delay in receiving his benefits.
  • A man who was hospitalised with a heart attack and whose Universal Credit was stopped. Now out of hospital, he is having to wait for his UC to be reinstated.
  • A young woman who has just started to train as a healthcare assistant and whose pay doesn’t arrive for a month, giving her no money for food after rent and bills have been covered.
  • A couple who missed an appointment and were sanctioned, so are having to wait six weeks for the next payment. This results in them becoming in arrears with rent and spiralling into debt.
  • A single parent with a four-year-old child and, due to previous debt, £190 per week is being taken from their benefits to cover the debt, not allowing them any
    money for food.
  • A man unable to get any benefits due to the habitual residence rule, which means you can only be out of the country for three months and then benefit is stopped. He was in Vietnam visiting his daughter for five months, and now has to wait until the end of December before he gets any money. His fault, perhaps, but nonetheless he is still going hungry.

“This is just a snapshot. Some have mental health issues and are unable to work. Some don’t have the bus fare, clothes or the ability to be able to hold down any kind of regular job. Drugs and alcohol can play a large part in all of this, as well as spiralling debt and not knowing how to deal with it.”

How do people get referred?

It isn’t just about turning up and filling your bags. There are hundreds of foodbanks across the UK – some work independently, the majority part of the Trussell Trust network. They work with doctors, health visitors, social workers, Citizens Advice and the police who make referrals using a voucher system. Incredibly in Britain GPs are prescribing food. Almost 54,000 frontline professionals have referred people to foodbanks.

The Trussell Trust website allows people to search for their nearest foodbank. Each lists the referral agencies they work with and information on how to make an appointment. Problems are discussed and if the situation warrants emergency food provision, a voucher will be issued, redeemed for a three-day emergency food parcel. Volunteers offer advice and direct people to charities and agencies that could help tackle their problems long-term.

What needs to change

There should be mealbanks not just foodbanks

I’m most concerned for families in poverty in London. Not all children are getting a hot meal while they are out of school. They buy chicken and chips, which causes obesity and malnutrition. At school, they get a variety of meals. They can’t at home. Kids go hungry when not in school, I’ve seen this. Foodbanks are wonderful but the pressure on them is more and more, but they can’t provide all the essential ingredients.

You can only use the foodbank once every two weeks, but within a week you run out of food. It would be a better system to have lunch vouchers for families, ones you could use in restaurants. You could get a hot lunch – they have surplus food they just throw away. There should also be mealbanks, not just foodbanks.

Sarah* is a refugee who has lived in the UK for over a decade

More support should be available for people at crisis points in their lives

This is my fourth visit in the last month. I know they aren’t supposed to give me four vouchers but the gentleman I see for them understands my situation and said he doesn’t want to see me starve. Right now I’m in limbo. It feels like I have 10 brick walls in front of me that I have to break down. It feels like as soon as you break one down another one pops up.

I’d probably be dead by now if it wasn’t for the foodbank. Sometimes you have to supplement it with shopping on the side. You might get lots of tinned veg or pasta and rice, but you then need to go and buy some additional items to pad it out and make a proper meal. But I think that comes down to the fact that foodbanks rely on donations, so I don’t blame them for it. If they haven’t received much of something that week then there isn’t much to go around.

The only qualm I have with the foodbank system itself is that they only give you three vouchers within a six-month period, which isn’t sustainable, particularly for someone like a single mum who hasn’t got any way out in the near future. I think more support should be available for people at  those crisis points  in their lives.

John T* ran a media company in Leeds before it went bust last October

*names have been changed

People have to work hard to make the food into a good diet

Liz: You can see people are really desperate and struggling with the benefits system. Some people just aren’t coping with life. That has been the most eye-opening thing, the many different ways people get into the position of needing help.

Monique: It’s not just the people you would think it would be.

Liz: I think the most heartbreaking and heartwarming is the academy next door. Every so often one of the teachers will come with a child and ask if they can have a bag to bring home to their family. The only way this can happen is the teacher realising the child is going hungry. For the child to carry that burden, it’s desperate.

Monique: The rice and pasta that people donate is fine and useful, but sometimes people ask for pepper and spices and something a bit different.

Liz: The storeroom is tiny. We can only store dried and tinned food and you realise people have to work quite hard to make the food into a good diet. And you get people that don’t have cooking facilities – that makes it even more difficult.

Monique: Yes, you think that ‘Well they got their food, so they’re alright’ but it’s not that simple.

Liz and Monique started volunteering at the foodbank this year

I hope the foodbank closes

The reasons that drive people to a foodbank are really complex. Essentially, it tends to be because of low-pay work and issues with the benefits system. We’ve already seen in Lambeth, which we are on the border of, Universal Credit rolled out as a full service in December last year. In the last six months we’ve seen the use of the foodbank rise by 150 per cent. Maybe not all of that is a direct result of Universal Credit but the numbers have gone up massively.

I don’t think foodbanks should be part of our norm. I hope the foodbank closes because we have a benefits system that supports vulnerable people when they need it.

Rebekah Gibson is manager of Oasis Centre Waterloo foodbank

Prof Green says…

profgreen

Visiting my local foodbank was eye-opening and I learned more than I had anticipated. Foodbanks offer much more than just food. To effectively tackle hunger, you’ve got to look at  the underlying causes of the crisis. In order to do this, Trussell Trust foodbanks signpost people to local agencies that can help them break out of poverty.

People come to foodbanks as a last resort and it’s not an easy thing to do. One of the volunteers I spoke to used to rely on a foodbank himself – it was incredible to see how it had helped improve his life, so much so that he went back to help others in need.

It’s definitely not a straightforward issue and the reasons behind usage of foodbanks are both varied and complicated. With that being said, there are small things that we can be doing every day to make a difference. Foodbanks rely on donations – they  come from schools, supermarkets, businesses and donations from individuals like you and me. Even something tiny could have a huge impact on someone this Christmas.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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