Social Justice

'How are people going to cope?': Almost all food banks helping first-time users as demand surges

Nearly eight-in-ten food banks saw demand for their services increase comparing August to October 2023 with the same period last year – yet 73% saw donations drop

A volunteer at a food bank packaging supplies. Credit: IFAN Mary Turner The Welcome Centre

Some 98% of food banks are helping people seeking support for the first time, alarming new data has revealed, as the cost of living crisis “forces people to turn to charity”.

Findings released by the Independent Food Aid Network today have exposed the shocking extent of food poverty in the UK.

IFAN surveyed 69 organisations running 173 independent food banks across England, Scotland and Wales. Nearly eight-in-ten organisations saw demand for their services increase comparing August to October 2023 with the same period last year – yet 73% reported a drop in donations.

This double whammy is taking a huge toll; Four in ten organisations have struggled to support people due to a lack of resources and the same number fear they won’t have the capacity to meet rising demand.

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Charlotte White, a manager at Earlsfield Foodbank, said volunteers can struggle to absorb “so much sadness and pain”.

“About 10% of the guests we see every week are in “deep crisis” (no money at all due to benefit sanctions, facing eviction, family breakdown etc). The stories are heartbreaking and many guests in crisis talk of suicidal thoughts,” she explained.

“We are really worried about the coming months – not about our ability to meet the demand, but just how on earth people are going to cope, when they’re already at rock bottom and have been struggling for so long. Without a doubt, January and February will be our worst ever months.”

Why are food banks struggling so much?

More than 600,000 people are likely to need the support of food banks between December and February, according to forecasts from the Trussell Trust. That’s a total of one million food parcels, or about one parcel every eight seconds.

Food bank managers have previously warned The Big Issue that people are turning to sex work and taking out dangerous loans before coming to a food bank.

Volunteers told the latest IFAN survey that they were facing “increasingly distressing and challenging situations” as they become increasingly vital.

“Our food bank has become, if not the first port of call, then certainly one of the more prominent options given by local council and NHS agencies to people approaching them in situations of food poverty,” said Ian Harwood of Brackley Foodbank in West Northamptonshire.

“We are becoming a significant and regular support to people referred to us in these circumstances. This is a very risky strategy.”

In light of these harrowing findings, IFAN is calling on the government to think again about the level of support it is providing this winter and beyond.

Sabine Goodwin – the organisation’s director – said that the measures announced in the recent autumn statement showed the government’s “blinkered” approach to the poverty crisis.

“However positive, making National Minimum Wage increases, bare minimum rises to social security payments and unfreezing Local Housing Allowance in April is not going to give respite to people facing financial hardship and struggling frontline support agencies this winter,” she said.

“Draconian changes to Work Capability Assessment threaten to push yet more people into hardship and there are fears that the potential removal of the Household Support Fund could have a devastating impact in communities across England.”

Measures to force ill and disabled people into work are likely to drive more people into food banks than employment, she warned.

As need outstrips donations, food banks are reliant on public support. Anyone can donate and it is one of the most direct ways of helping local people at their most desperate time. Check out our explainer here to find out how to help.

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For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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