16 Apr 2014

Food banks: on the front line with Britain’s poorest

As new Trussell Trust figures show that food banks fed almost 1m people last year, Epsom and Ewell food bank manager Jonathan Lees writes from the front line.

When I set up the food bank in Epsom and Ewell, none of us could believe that 18 months down the line it would have grown this big, writes Jonathan Lees. That is really sad and scary for a country that claims to be at the forefront of so much, a modern democratic society – the UK.

It has been a roller coaster of a ride, where we have fed almost 3,000 people, collected more than 40 tonnes of food, and are working with over 80 agencies in leafy Surrey.

Last year a celebrity chef came to live with one of our clients for a few days as a part of a national TV programme. The chef’s first words have stayed with me: “What, you’re sending me to Surrey? Surely not!”

Heartbreaking stories

Food poverty is all around us, but we are often so busy with our lives that we do not see the signs and desperation of so many people. It is incredibly heart-breaking and emotionally draining to hear their stories.

Read more: the truth about food banks - dependency or welfare crisis?

We recently had a lady walk in who just looked like an “average” person, not somebody who you would have said was in food poverty – but her life had reached a point where she just couldn’t survive.

She had sat in her car outside the food bank for over an hour plucking up the courage to come in, hoping that she wasn’t going to recognise anybody.

We run four centres, and at one I discovered one of my volunteers running out of the back door.

A lady had appeared who she used to work with, and she was so worried about being seen and upsetting her that she was trying to stay out of the way.

'Shocking rise in food bank use'

Over 900,000 adults and children received three days' emergency food and support from Trussell Trust food banks in the last 12 months, a shocking 163 percent rise on numbers helped in the previous financial year. the charity said on Wednesday.

The Trussell Trust said rising numbers were turning to food banks because their incomes are "squeezed", despite signs of an economic recovery.

The trust now has more than 400 food banks across the UK, although it is opening two a week compared with three in 2012/13.

It says its food banks are now offering welfare advice and providing essentials such as washing powder, nappies and hygiene products to families at "breaking point".

Trussell Trust Chairman Chris Mould says: "That 900,000 people have received three days' food from a food bank - close to triple the numbers helped last year - is shocking in 21st-century Britain.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "We're spending £94bn a year on working age benefits so that the welfare system provides a safety net to millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so they can meet their basic needs.

"Even the OECD say there are fewer people struggling with their food bills compared with a few years ago, benefit processing times are improving and even the Trussell Trust's own research recognises the effect their marketing activity has on the growth of their business.

"The truth is that the employment rate is the highest it's been for five years and our reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities by promoting work and helping people to lift themselves out of poverty."

Benefit delays

This has happened a number of times, and when you see someone you used to work with it can be quite disturbing. It makes you realise that food poverty could happen to any one of us.

The clients come in for many different reasons. The majority are either on a low income or are experiencing benefit delays. The biggest thing that hits me is that there is just no flexibility, no grace within our system.

In the same week we had two very sad stories. I turned up at the end of a food distribution centre session to collect the paperwork and food lists, and one of my volunteers was very distraught. She had had a client in who was desperate.

The lady had applied for benefit as she knew she was leaving her job due to illness and a hospital stay. The week before she was due to go into hospital, she got a letter saying her application had been rejected.

When she enquired, she was told that she had used the wrong form, but she said “that’s the one you gave me?” and they said, “Oh yes, we gave you the old one, but you need the new one” and told her to do it again.

This then meant a wait of at least another four weeks – but potentially up to 12 weeks.

A second scenario that demonstrated the problem that week was a man with dyslexia. He had gone through the form he had been given, misread a question, ticked the wrong box and been rejected. It’s tough.