30 May 2013

Half a million people turn to food banks to survive

The numbers of people relying on food banks to survive has exploded in the UK in what is being described as a “national disgrace”, as Cordelia Lynch reports.

More than half a million people may rely on food banks, according to a study by Oxfam and Church Poverty Action.

Benefits cuts, unemployment and the increased cost of living are being blamed for driving the growth in hunger and poverty.

On the frontline of feeding the hungry are food banks, mostly licensed by the Trussell Trust. The trust say 350,000 people came to them for help in 2012 – nearly triple the number the previous year.

The report calls the amount of food poverty in the UK “a national disgrace.”

It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to have to go, but it’s a godsend. Jason Broadhurst

It demands action from the government, to raise the minimum wage and benefits in line with inflation. It also claims demand for food banks will continue to rise because of the impact of the recent cuts and the new universal credit system.

But supplies are running out already and many volunteering for the food banks say they are not the long-term solution. In Stoke-on-Trent, manager Ron Willoughby said they have already been forced to ration food and prioritise the over-65s and children, because of a surge in demand.

‘More and more people’ in need

Mr Willoughby said: “We have more and more people coming to us, but we have to make difficult decisions. In the last two weeks we’ve made public appeals and re-stocked the shelves. People have been generous, but the needs are only going to get greater. We have young, old, employed, unemployed coming to us. The picture is changing.”

In Warrington, we spoke to 40-year-old Jason Broadhurst, who lost his job a year ago. Two months ago he also lost his benefits, worth around £135 a fortnight. Two weeks ago, he started going to the local food bank.

“It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to have to go, but it’s a godsend. Some days I survive off beans on toast, other days it’s worse,” he said.

A long-term solution?

But there is growing scepticism about the system of food banks. In Canada, where they have existed for 30 years, volunteers have started to turn their backs on them, tired of three decades of supporting the programmes which were envisaged as a short-term remedy not a solution to the problem of food poverty.

In response to slick adverts appealing for people’s donations, new videos have emerged giving fifty ways to close a food bank (see below).

In the UK there has been cross parliamentary support for the vital work volunteers are doing to tackle a pressing issue, but there is a growing debate around the need to tackle the broader problem. A consortium of seventy charities has joined forces to monitor food poverty figures in the UK and intend to present them to the United Nations. Jonathan Butterworth, head of Just Fair says: “We believe the UK is falling short on many fronts, and we hope our findings will embarrass the government and force change.”

The new figures have come at a time when more and more people are beginning to question just how far the current system can reach and what else needs to be happening to alleviate increasing food poverty.