We live in one of the world’s richest nations and yet increasing numbers of our citizens are using food banks.
Many of them are not homeless or jobless, they are the working poor, or those who have suddenly been thrown into crisis.
Last year the food bank at Huddersfield’s Welcome Centre, one of the largest in West Yorkshire, handed out 8,782 food, home starter and toiletry packs – enough for 144,000 meals and a 17-fold increase on the 500 packs it gave out in its first year of operation two decades ago. Such is the scale of demand that the organisation, which operates in the South Kirklees area, has had to open a warehouse in Lockwood to store donations and stock.
As Ellie Pearson, manager of the facility, explains: “Problems with benefits are a big reason why people are using food banks, but we also see people who are on zero-hour contracts who don’t know what is coming in from one week to the next; or self-employed people who become sick; people with unexpected bills like bereavement costs or travelling to see a relative in hospital; people fleeing domestic violence; also refugees and asylum seekers.
“A lot of people are just one pay cheque award from having nothing.
“There’s a misconception that we are primarily helping homeless people, they are not a huge proportion of our clients. A lot of the people we see have jobs, have homes – some have a mortgage. They are people who never expected to be coming to a food bank.”
Another misconception about food banks is that they are open to anyone who wants a handout, and that clients become dependant on free food. In fact, only those with a referral from another agency – homeless charities, MPs, GPs, schools, drug and alcohol agencies, and social services etc – can access the food bank. And half of those individuals will make just a single visit. Around 80% of clients are provided with just two or three packs, and only around one fifth of clients could be described as ‘regulars’.
Benefit difficulties, largely stemming from austerity measures and changes to the system implemented in 2015 have undoubtedly caused an explosion in the demand for both food and toiletry packs.
The roll-out of Universal Credit, which will affect all claimants in Kirklees later this year, is a major cause of distress. Ellie explains: “At present any single person making a benefits claim is affected, but from November this year it will be all new claimants. The issue with it is that from the point of putting your first claim in there is a six week delay until the first payment. This is supposed to emulate the way monthly salaries are paid.
“A lot of charities and campaign groups nationally and locally have given feedback on this and an inquiry began before the election, but that was stopped. As far as we are aware the roll out will continue as planned.”
Members of the public are enormously supportive of the food bank operation, which employs six staff and has up to 80 volunteers. Donations are made by individuals, schools, churches and corporate businesses. Fresh fruit and vegetables, for example, arrive on a regular basis from Morrisons, while Sainsbury’s donates bread. Bakery products come from Greggs and Marks & Spencer makes a range of donations. Tesco operates a FareShare scheme, which also contributes. The food bank also buys in goods that it needs – and is grateful to those who fundraise.
As well as supplying food and toiletries, the food bank hands out pet food, bedding, sleeping bags and kitchen equipment. Many of the pots and pans that line the shelves of the Lord Street premises comes from Storthes Hall student campus, which allows charity volunteers to clear accommodation of items left behind at the end of term. For people with nothing, who’ve recently acquired a new home, the food bank can provide the bare essentials.
The food packs themselves are made up by volunteers, who work from a list compiled in consultation with the clients. Ellie says many different dietary requirements can be met – from the needs of coeliac patients to vegetarians. She added: “People can look through the items and if they find something they don’t like they can exchange the item. We try to make the packs as nutritionally balanced as we can and we try to make the experience of using the food bank as welcoming as possible.”
Packs supply enough food for a week and can be made up for individuals or families.
As well as feeding clients, the Welcome Centre offers an advice service. The Esme Fairbairn Foundation has provided funding for a development worker, Cath Williams, who can give help or advice on a range of problems – from benefit issues and budgeting to housing. She too acknowledges that benefit changes and punitive sanctions have caused widespread misery. Cath explained: “I see a lot of people with issues relating to benefits and budgeting – people used to managing their money every two weeks and now its every four weeks – but there are also random crises that affect people, which you can’t plan for.
“I’ve seen people who have failed their medicals and those who have ended up destitute.
“Rent used to be paid direct to the landlord and now rent money goes to the client, which means they have a large chunk of money in their hands and can be a problem if they don’t budget properly.”
With the full roll-out of Universal Credit on the way food bank staff are braced for worse to come.
As Ellie says: “Ideally I would be saying that we will be shutting down in two years time because we’re no longer needed. But we won’t. It’s a shame that we’ve got to be here at all.”
* According to a recent Oxfam report, the richest 1% of people living in the UK have 20 times the wealth of the total owned by the poorest 20%. The International Monetary Fund puts the UK in the top 10 ten of the world’s wealthiest nations, as does USA’s Central Intelligence Agency. Quite clearly, the trickle-down effect - an economic theory that says measures benefitting the rich will also benefit the poor - doesn’t seem to be working.
The Huddersfield food bank welcomes donations of dried and canned food, clean bedding and towels and kitchen equipment. At the moment it has a shortage of canned meat meals tuna, jars of sandwich fillers, cereals and toiletries. Shortages are posted on the organisation’s website thewelcomecentre.org