Susan Press reports on a dramatic rise in the use of food banks.
It’s Saturday morning at St Mary’s Church in Todmorden where a shed next to the church is crammed with tinned and dried food ready for distribution to people who don’t have the money to feed themselves or their families. Welcome to Cameron’s Britain in 2013.
Todmorden, a small market town on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, is just the latest location in a national network of over 600 food banks which, according to the latest statistics from Oxfam, are now feeding over 500,000 a year in the UK.
Like many others, this new initiative has received help and advice from the Trussell Trust, which has established 345 food banks over the past twelve months. Many more have been set up by small local charities or community organisations.
In Todmorden, the Town Council has chipped in with a £1,400 cash grant to buy food and local supermarkets like ASDA and Morrisons have sent in supplies of everything from tinned tomatoes and spaghetti to essential toiletry items. There are also stacks of carrier bags full of individual donations waiting to be allocated following an appeal in the local press.
In some areas, all recipients must be referred by care professionals such as social workers or police officers. Todmorden’s project has an ‘open door’ policy but visitors still have to undergo a lengthy interview as advisors ask them what supplies they are likely to need over cups of tea and toast.
All in all, it is a pretty stressful process. Or as project co-ordinator Janet Garner puts it: “You’d have to be pretty desperate to come here for help so we are not in the business of judging or turning anyone away.”
In the interests of fairness and nutritional value, everything is strictly rationed to last for one week only per person; one tin of soup, milk, three individual servings of cereal, tinned fruit, dried pasta, rice pudding or custard (not both) jam, bread and baked beans. Even salt, oil and sugar are siphoned into small containers designed to last a week as are toiletry items like soap, shampoo and sanitary towels. Vegetarians and people without cooking facilities have a slightly different list of items which are carefully ticked off and put into carrier bags by the team of volunteers.
So far there are 50 of them and there is no doubting the community spirit which has seen so many come forward to pick up, pack and distribute goods. But St Mary’s Vicar and Labour supporter Owen Page agrees the fact food banks have to be set up at all is something he never expected to see happen in the UK.
“Some of the people coming here are desperate and with the advent of the new welfare reforms, particularly the impact of the Bedroom Tax, there are going to be a lot more of them. We know food banks are not a solution but the Todmorden community wanted to do something to help and our Town Council has been very supportive. We have been trying to get started for some months and originally we were hoping to set up in an old shop or community centre, as we felt some people would find a church ambience off-putting. But that didn’t prove possible so we are working hard to stress the fact you don’t have to be of a particular faith, or any faith, to come here.”
There are also food banks in nearby Halifax and Burnley, where the number of people visiting the food bank has increased 600 per cent in the last twelve months. But the area with the highest proportion of people being helped is actually in the South West of England, where jobs are few and where the cost of living is much higher than in the North.
The Trussell Trust says the dramatic increase in the use of its food banks is set to rise even further as poorer families struggle as a result of the Government’s welfare reforms. And now Labour’s leadership has signed up to caps on welfare benefits, they are likely to continue to do so — whoever wins in 2015.