‘Are you telling me people in this country are going hungry? Seriously? Seriously?” Edwina Currie asked a Radio 5 Live audience recently – adding that she “really had great difficulty” believing that people in Britain went without food.
According to the former Conservative minister, there are “real” people starving in this world, but not in the UK.
Sean and Mandi Clarke, who live with their daughters Jade and Jasmine in the Wiltshire town of Amesbury, disagree. In the Clarke household, money is so tight they have relied on food parcels from their local foodbank not once, but several times this year. “We would have been having beans on toast this Christmas if it weren’t for the foodbank,” says Mandi. Instead they will be getting a box containing mince pies, cheese and sweet biscuits, chocolate, a Christmas pudding, crisps, dates and tinned ham.
The first time they received a Christmas box Mandi cried with relief. “We had to chose between paying for food, heating or rent,” she says. “Thanks to the food hamper, we could sit down and eat together as a family for the first time in weeks. We’d been telling the children we’d eat when they’d gone to bed, but the reality was we were going without.”
Foodbanks were launched in 2000 by the Trussell Trust, and the demand for their help has grown steeply in the past year. There are now 163 foodbanks around the country, with more than one a week opening during 2011.
People who have no money to buy food are referred to their local service by GPs, Citizens Advice, social workers, charities, and school liaison officers. Each person or family is entitled to three vouchers at a time, and each voucher can be exchanged for a bag of emergency food that lasts three days.
Despite Currie’s assertions, there are plenty of people in Britain in need of this help. The Salisbury foodbank alone saw an increase of 600 people seeking help in 2011, from 3,300 to 3,900 – an 18% rise.
This rise is typical – foodbanks that have been running the longest have seen increases of between 15% and 30% since the beginning of the recession.
Chris Mould, executive chairman of the Trussell Trust, says the charity’s foodbanks will feed up to 130,000 people in 2011/12, but says that the country actually needs about 1,000 foodbanks to ensure most people have access to one. The charity needs funding of £1.6m to launch, train volunteers and maintain the quality of 445 foodbanks by 2015, with the aim of feeding 450,000 people a year.
The increase in middle class people needing help is matched by that in young people – most of whom receive no state help following the axing of the education maintenance allowance in January 2011.
Salisbury foodbank manager Mark Ward says: “We have kids at college coming in. They might live at home, but the parents have issues, or they may be sofa surfing – living at friends’ houses.”
Crises are also spurred by delays in or the stopping of benefit payments or the refusal of crisis loans from the social fund. It can take months, if not a year, for an appeal against a benefits decision, but the claimant still has to survive in the meantime.
Even when benefits are granted, it can take many weeks for the money to come through. One woman, who was eight months pregnant, was reduced to burning shelves to keep warm.
Ward says: “We’ve been helping one woman, in her 20s, who is being paid just £30 a fortnight in benefits. They know this is wrong, but they can’t sort it out until 6 January. She will have survived five or six weeks without the money she is due by then. There doesn’t seem to be any compassion in the system.”
Food parcels are made up of tinned and dried staples which will not go off. Sean says: “We used the foodbank to supplement the fresh food that we can afford. We buy bread, milk, vegetables and mince to go with the tinned tomatoes, pasta and rice from the foodbank.”
At noon on a Thursday before Christmas, the foodbank in Salisbury is busy. Volunteers are packing bags, checking off the food items against a list. Many are destined for people sent along by the local jobcentre.
Christmas is one of its busiest times of year: the charity is not only giving out the emergency bags of food, but also boxes of Christmas treats, and food for children who would normally be given breakfast and lunch at school, and would otherwise lack that nutrition during the holiday. Food is donated by members of the public – either by dropping an item into a collection trolley outside their local supermarket, or through harvest festival collections. The Christmas food has all been donated by Tesco customers.
It would be much easier for the charity to go straight to food manufacturers and ask for help in bulk, but Chris Mould, executive chairman of the Trussell Trust, says that would stop the foodbanks being a community project, where people are helping those who live right next door. He is particularly keen that schools become involved, seeing it as a simple and practical way to teach children about community, society and citizenship.
The foodbanks are believed to reduce crime, health breakdowns and homelessness, because getting free food means people can concentrate on paying their rent or mortgage.
It is Big Society in action. “We believe 750,000 people volunteered and gave food to foodbanks this year. By 2015 if we have 445 more branches, we will mobilise more than 3 million people,” Mould says.
The Clarkes are well aware that they may be branded “scroungers” by a certain sector of society. Like many people who come to the foodbanks for help, they were embarrassed to be asking for something as basic as food, but Sean admits “there have been times when we wouldn’t have survived without the foodbank”.
“It was hard at first to seek help, especially with our debts, and we certainly didn’t ask about food,” he says. “It’s a real knock to your pride. But the people here are not judgmental. I would recommend anyone who is at their wits end about money seek help here.”
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