The importance of food banks

This Christmas, many people are sitting down to a lovely dinner with wide varieties of food. Whilst the majority of the country will be sitting down to enjoy their meal, up to 2% of UK households were relying on food banks last year and might not be so privileged. According to the Lewisham Foodbank, the Trussell Trust network has set up 1,200 foodbanks with other operators running a further 816 food banks in the UK alone. There is an enormous number of people going hungry in this country, and the figures are only getting worse. The State of Hunger 2019 Executive Summary indicates that the Trussell Trust has seen need increasing from 61,000 people in 2010 to 1,583,000 people last year.

A major hurdle to people from seeking help from food banks is from the picture of embarrassment they imagine is involved. A grateful recipient of the Lewisham foodbank described her initial reluctance to ask for help: “eventually, with some trepidation and humiliation, we went to the food bank. Before we went there, we felt it was like begging but the staff were amazing and kind. Only because of others’ generosity were we able to survive.” Users report, however, that their initial reluctance wears off after the friendly volunteers welcome them in as respected customers. It’s not just the food packages people head to a foodbank for, it’s also for support. As a friend of a recent recipient stated in respect of their experience with the Lewisham foodbank, “you provided food, and more importantly, someone for her to speak to without prejudice.” There are any number of reasons that people find themselves relying on foodbanks ill health and job losses being major ones. And these hardships are massively exacerbated because there is a legal wait of five weeks between applying for Universal Credit and receiving any payment. This time-lag can push stretched families to breaking point.

The Lewisham Foodbank, part of the Trussell Trust, responded to a questionnaire about their operations:

1. How long do people rely on food banks on average?

According to the Trussell Trust’s research, most people have around two referrals to a food bank per year.

2. How many times a week on average do food bank users visit?

It is only possible to use a food bank voucher once in a week. The rule in our Lewisham food banks is no more than four vouchers can be used in a six-month period.

3. On average, what age are people that come to the food banks? Are there many families with children who rely on food bank support?

Twenty-two percent of those visiting food banks are single parents. Forty-six percent of people referred were single people living alone. One third of those fed by our food parcels last year were children. Seventy-seven percent of those using food banks are in the age range 25 to 54 years.

4. How much food is in the parcels per person asking? Does this vary depending on donations?

We give a minimum of three days’ nutritionally balanced, non-perishable canned and dried food as well as some essential toiletries. The food parcel will include things like cereal, pasta, soup, tinned fruit, tinned meat/fish, long life milk and juice, pasta sauce and toilet roll. There is a given allowance which varies according to the size of household. This will not vary according to donations. We keep a careful record of how much stock comes in and goes out, so if we are running low on stock, we will send out an appeal for more.

5. Do government policies have notable impacts on food bank reliance?

For 86% of households referred to food banks, state benefits were a source of income (either fully dependent or combined with earnings). Changes in the benefit system therefore has a major impact on household income for our users. Currently, Universal Credit is the most commonly received benefit. A particular issue with Universal Credit is that, once judged eligible, recipients have to wait five weeks before receiving their first payment. This creates a major financial problem for many people. Two other welfare policies that are drivers for food bank use are the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. In addition, nearly 75% of users reported someone in their household had a health issue. The workings of the benefit system for people with health issues is also an issue.

6. How do food banks work with local businesses to provide food?

We have ongoing support from supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsburys and Asda. They house donation points for us. Every year, in November, Tesco allows us to have a three-day collection in their stores. Tesco also gives us a 20% top-up to the weight of food collected in their in-store collection points. Other businesses get involved by offering teams of corporate volunteers to do occasional food sorts – such as after the Tesco collection.

7. Can food banks use expired food donated by supermarkets and left-over food from restaurants?

We do not accept or give out any food with an expired use by date. We carefully check the dates on food and dispose of any that have expired on the shelves. This only happens infrequently because we have systems to mitigate it. We cannot store any fresh food.

8. At what times of year do people rely on the support given by food banks the most?

A crisis can strike at any time but there are additional pressures in the run up to Christmas due to higher heating and lighting costs and the social pressure to have treats and gifts. Lewisham Foodbank gives out additional Christmas treats such as mince pies and selection boxes for children in the two weeks before Christmas.

9. Is the support for food banks consistent throughout the year, or does it peak at Christmas?

In Lewisham, three times more stock than usual comes in the period from October to December due to harvest collections in schools and churches, the three-day Tesco collection and additional giving in the run up to Christmas.

As the Lewisham food bank states, the Trussell Trust aims, rather than growing the operations to meet their demand, by campaigning and researching an end to the need for food banks. This also becomes relevant with the recent general election, the Trust calls for the newly elected government to end the five-week wait for Universal Credit which will therefore lead to a mass reduction in food bank usage. Food banks do extraordinary and lifesaving work, but they don’t allow people to become dependent long-term. They use a voucher system to ensure that only four foodbank packages can be claimed in a six month period to help buffer temporary hardships. They stress, however, that even if a customer exceeds their aid package allowance, the foodbank will always offer compassion, advice and emotional support.

People should not ever have to decide whether to feed their family or skip a meal themselves. A Lewisham mother got used to enduring hunger so her children could eat; she described her experience; “I do [skip meals]. The kids don’t, but I do. I can go three days without eating.” The food bank helped her by providing short term food support to stop her having to go without.

Food banks encourage local communities to donate food and to volunteer. 80 volunteers coordinated by one paid employee run the Lewisham foodbank. They encourage involvement in a number of ways: signing up to campaigns to end hunger, writing to your MP and other ways of social awareness through the media.

Food banks are vital organisations which have saved many people who need someone to lean on to get back on their feet, this year providing 3,810 emergency food packages in Lewisham alone. This is extraordinary work but quite shocking that such a level of social need exists – and Lewisham is not alone in this. It will take a change of government policy to turn around the tragic need that is being filled by food banks and other charitable organisations. Lobbying for social change will help to fix things at their root cause. In the meantime, volunteering and supporting local food banks will help to relieve the pressing need one food package at a time

– Amy Clarke, year 10

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