Stuck around the walls of the church hall at St Paul’s in the heart of Leicester is a series of green laminated signs. There’s one for the Centre Project and another for The Bridge. There’s the Welcome Project, the Leicester Aids Support Service, the St Paul’s over-60s group and more besides. Stacked up tidily in front of each one, awaiting collection, is food. Lots of it.
Boxes of fresh vegetables sit alongside bags of freshly baked bread; jars of seafood pasta sauce, still under plastic wrap, are tucked in alongside sacks of rice. Each one of these heaps, obtained by the Leicester branch of the food waste charity FareShare, is a marker for chronic hunger; a profound hunger that, as the economic forecasts worsen and the Conservative party meets in Manchester this weekend to argue over what can be done about it, is only deepening.
“There’s a big increase in demand,” says John Russell of the Centre Project, a drop-in project in the heart of Leicester supporting people in need. “We used to feed 30 or 40 people a week. Now it’s 70 or 80.”
Housing provision and benefit rules have changed, he says, and that’s creating need.
Keith Harrold of Project 5000 in Loughborough, which runs a hot food service once a week from a local church, agrees. “People are struggling. Supermarket prices are shooting up and they aren’t coping.”
Yvonne Welford, who runs the over-60s group for St Paul’s, is seeing the same picture. “There’s been a major increase in demand, especially in the last six months, and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse.”
Poverty has al ways been a fact of life, even in good times. But FareShare is now seeing a serious growth in the number of people without the resources to feed themselves properly that is, experts say, without precedent in modern Britain.
All of the organisations in Leicester that are supplied by FareShare describe themselves as being dependent on the charity, which obtains food from manufacturers and supermarkets that might otherwise end up rotting in landfill sites, and supplies it to groups helping those in need.
Founded in 2004, the charity works from 17 sites in the UK and shifts 3,600 tonnes of food a year, worth more than £8m. In the past 12 months the number of people it feeds has risen from 29,000 to 35,500. The number of organisations signed up to receive food has risen from 600 to 700. And 42% of those organisations are recording increases of up to 50% in demand for their services.
John Willetts, a former NHS trust chief executive and now the volunteer project director for FareShare in Leicester, said: “It’s a constant ramping up in demand all the time. The volume of food we’re distributing has risen from 41 tonnes a year three years ago to 98 tonnes now, and that’s to the same number of organisations.”
He takes me to meet Diana Cank of the community action social project (Casp) in the deprived Northfields district of the city. Much of the food FareShare distributes goes to drop-in centres and homelessness hostels that cook meals on site, but Casp distributes food bags directly to those in need.
“The demand has always been there,” says Cank, a sturdy, cheerful woman who has worked in community care for 25 years. “But that demand has escalated. At the beginning of this year I suddenly realised there were just more people coming. To be honest, I think most people would be shocked by the growing need for basic food.”
Three grandmothers from the estate admit that times are indeed tough. “We’d be lost without the food from here,” says Joan. “It’s the fresh fruit and vegetables that are so good,” says Julie. “The benefits are just not enough to get us through.” Each of them is the matriarch of a family blighted by unemployment and need. “The food from FareShare helps us to make things go further.”
The Joseph’s Storehouse project in Loughborough, run out of a pub that’s been converted into a homelessness hostel, has also seen more and more people coming to its doors for food parcels. “We’ve gone from about a dozen a week to over 100,” says project manager Judith Spence. The main change, she says, is the type of people coming. It used mostly to be single men; now she is seeing many more families.
Bruce Bateson, who acts as carer for his wife and for his young child, knows the pressures families are under. “We’re all unemployed in our household and simply didn’t have enough to feed ourselves,” he says, as though it is a blunt fact of life. So how important is the food? “What I can get here saves me £15 or £20 a week, and that enables me to get other bills paid.”
I ask Spence if there’s been a very recent increase in demand. At first she says no, but then she begins flicking through the list of registered users. Every user of the service has to show they are on benefits to register. Once every three months, she says, she goes through the list and takes off those who haven’t come to them for food in the previous three months.
She squints at the list. “I take it back. In the past three months I haven’t taken anybody off the list, but another 200 have come on. The number of users has doubled.”
The FareShare headquarters is on a light industrial estate in Bermondsey, south London. Here, major food manufacturers and supermarkets deliver their leftovers to an airy warehouse filled with industrial-scale fridges.
Some of it is the result of poor forecasting of demand, resulting in oversupply. Some of it is too close to the use-by date to go on sale, or has a misprint on the labelling or damage to the packaging. The warehouse is stacked with pallets of instant gravy granules and jars of pickled cucumbers. The fridges are filled with boxes of apples and tomatoes, with fresh milk, and a curious amount of jarlsberg cheese.
Because they are there to make use of what the food industry does not want, they can be a repository for anything from the most banal to foie gras parfait and rib-eye steaks.
Lindsay Boswell, the charity’s chief executive, makes no secret of the fact that the original motive was making better use of the environment. “We started out purely interested in liberating waste,” he says. “We are an environmental charity that gets bloody angry about food being wasted.”
Hence much of the early effort lay in getting the supermarkets to admit they were wasting food, and to make use of the surplus rather than use landfill sites to get rid of it.
Despite FareShare’s efforts, it estimates that it only handles 1% of the three million tonnes of food that goes to waste every year. Now, though, the work of the charity has moved on. “We’re clear that alleviation of poverty has become the side that leads. I think most people in this country would assume that generally people can feed themselves. But they can’t.” If all FareShare was concerned with was waste, he says, it could just give food away to commuters. “But that’s not what we’re about. Demand for our food is going up faster than we can source it.”
Its findings are backed by the experiences of the Trussell Trust, a Salisbury-based charity that runs around 100 food banks all over the country, providing emergency supplies to people referred by frontline social services and care agencies. In the past year, it has seen a 50% increase in the number of people the food banks are feeding, from 41,000 a year to 61,500. Part of that, the trust says, is simply due to the expansion of the charity’s work.
“But there is also a definite increase in need,” says Jeremy Ravn, the charity’s food bank network director. “We’re seeing a larger number of younger people who are unable to find work. But there’s also an increase in those who were, for want of a better term, normal working people. Those who have lost jobs or who were running their own businesses and still need to feed their families.”
The problem, he says, is a failure by the welfare state to react quickly enough to need. “There can be a terrible lag between an application for benefits being accepted and the money coming on stream.”
Martin Caraher, professor of food policy at City University London, says recent research confirms what both the Trussell Trust and FareShare are seeing. “There are around 13 million people in Britain living in poverty, which is defined as earnings of 60% of the national average. Of those, four million are suffering nutritionally related consequences. And the big new group who are really suffering are working families.”
FareShare is dependent on volunteers, to help get deliveries in, catalogue them, and then make up the packages for distribution. Each delivery day, community food members are phoned up, told what’s on offer and asked what they would like. Organisations pay a small weekly fee for the service, which is a tiny portion of the cost of the food they receive.
For a day I join the volunteers in London. Out in the van we travel from homeless hostel to drop-in centre to homeless hostel and across to the Refugee Council. At each place the story is the same. More and more people are coming to them for the hot meal service. There are more and more people who need to be fed.
“We couldn’t live without the FareShare deliveries,” says Grant, a resident at an Emmaus community, a halfway house for homeless people coming off the streets. Grant used to be a chef and now helps to cook the meals for his fellow residents. “It makes a serious difference,” he says.
Cecilia Mpamugo, chef at the Refugee Council’s drop-in centre in Brixton, south London, cooks food for at least 100 people a day, many of whom have no other way to get a hot meal. “It’s shameful that the food would otherwise go to waste. And the quality is very, very good.”
So is FareShare part of the solution to Britain’s growing food poverty crisis? Lindsay Boswell thinks not. “We’re in the business of addressing the symptoms without addressing the disease. We are simply part of the alarm system.”
And the warning bells are ringing very loudly indeed. Food poverty is on the rise. The question remains: as politicians and lobbyists wine and dine each other around Manchester this weekend, is anyone listening?
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