Savage times, but food banks act to put bread on the table

Tescos collection Many supermarket customers dropped food donations into Tesco trolleys over the weekend for those UK people struggling with food poverty. The traditional habit of feeding the birds snippets seems to be replaced with more serious concerns.

The Trussell Trust’s national food collection across 3000 Tescos stores on the busiest weekend of the year meets an urgent need, as benefit changes continue to hurt vulnerable people. Rising living costs have pushed many over their financial limits.

Food banks are seeing a 7% increase in people coming with benefit-related issues

David McAuley, director of operations for the Trussell Trust, stopped at the Salisbury Tesco Metro. He said that since April their 400 food banks have seen a 7% increase in people coming with benefit-related issues.

With the need to remedy this as soon as possible, he said:

“The big thing at the minute is where is the Defra report on Food poverty?”

Mr McAuley was visiting stores across Hampshire and Dorset to see how the collections were going.

This year, he said, reports of food poverty were in the media and shoppers were asking more questions about why they are here.

“People just don’t understand why in the UK we need food banks,” he said.

Others refuse to believe that food poverty is an issue, so “We just want to keep it up there that people really are suffering and struggling.”

Where is the DWP report into food poverty?

Unsurprisingly Trussell Trust organisers are wondering why a government commissioned report into UK poverty has disappeared.

As the findings of the report are not public he said they are desperate to speak to Iain Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), to find out “What is the problem?”

heather collecting“There have been rumours flying around and an article in the Guardian this week saying that the DWP has shelved or squashed it so we need to find out,” Mr McAuley said.

“I haven’t seen the report so I cannot comment.”

“But we have seen a 7% increase in people coming to food banks with benefit issues since April.

“7% doesn’t seem a large figure but when you start multiplying it by the number of people coming to food banks that is quite a number struggling with benefit related problems.”

The figures mean that with an estimated 355,000 receiving food parcels between April and September, every month there are roughly 4,000 more with benefit-related issues than before.

“We are trying to work with the DWP, we have always found their officers are excellent but we just want to understand why there seems to be this issue,” Mr McAuley said.

Growing beyond their targets

Over the last year, the Trussell Trust reportedly opened three food banks a week. The number of volunteers is growing too and there are – according to one long-term volunteer, Heather – about 150 in Salisbury.

Heather began helping in 2004. “As more food banks open, we need more money,” she said.

“We have around 500 food banks. But we still want to open 200 more to have one in each of 700 towns across the British Isles, with each one aiming to be self-sufficient.”

Fittingly, on Monday December 2nd a second charity shop is opening in Salisbury helping support the warehouse deliveries and sorting the food collections, the meals and the shop workers.

Heather loves it all, saying that the team can meet the needs, but they have to regulate their resources.

“People do all sorts of amazing things, don’t they? It is not always easy to respond. To deliver food parcels is only possible for a very serious situation as there is a lot of pressure, but the Trussell Trust is coping and you just have to rationalise everything. Basically it is the churches who are running this.”

The food banks are feeding more families

The local food bank was open last Friday at Dews Road when Heather was there.

“There is a lot more use of the food banks,” Heather says. The food bank has grown from 2 to 3 clients nine years ago to 8 or 9 adults in last Friday. “And these adults were also feeding several children.”

“We know who has referred them from benefits, the Citizens Advice Bureau or the church and if there is a basis to why they have come in: for some it is unemployment but mostly it is benefit delays.”

Tesco customers are aware of the problem

After David McAuley left the Tesco Metro for other stores, some shoppers said they had already donated the day before. In Salisbury, as elsewhere, many customers were sympathetic, even when commenting that users of the food banks had been made redundant or were unemployed. As one said, dropping in a coin, “Tomorrow it could be me.”

Another shopper, Eileen, stopped in the doorway.

Louise the Trussel Trust volunteer manager with Anthony, van driver and general help
Louise the Trussell Trust volunteer manager with Anthony, van driver and general help

“What a nightmare,” she said. “When will something be done about this?”

Eileen takes part in the food bank in Ringwood. Since the church opened it in August, she has put aside £5 of her weekly pension money to buy food to donate.

Eileen’s back room looks like an army store, filled with the bargains she finds.

“I did not know there were people who were going hungry in Ringwood,” Eileen said.

Most donated food will go to the food bank centres. Last week one food bank client was an ex-offender trying to help his step-daughter. Next week it could be anybody. Whoever it is, the Trussell Trust make sure that they are giving food out to people who really are in need.

13 years of The Trussel Trust

The Trussel Trust can trace its short history to UN workers sending parcels to Bulgaria. In 2000 when a mother telephoned one of those workers – Paddy Henderson – saying Salisbury families were going to bed hungry, Paddy put down some carpet and food in a shed and started a food bank.

“The Trussell Trust is just individuals,” Heather said. “It is what people do. I think people enjoy it.”

Unreasonable benefit sanctions increase demand

But the operations director Mr McAuley also stressed they are working hard to solve the underlying issues. “Too many people are coming to food banks,” he said, highlighting some issues like benefit sanctions as making little sense.

“There seems to be a bit of an issue with people getting sanctioned for what I would call unreasonable reasons, such as being sent to two interviews at the same time and only going to one.

“We have to work that out and are trying to work with the DWP. We have found the officers are excellent, but we want to understand why there seems to be this issue”.

The food banks are only supposed to be a stop gap: “a short term support for people who fall through the net”.

While Mr McAuley went on his way, a Swindon fireman took the next Tesco shift, complete with fire engine at the ready.

Amidst blasts of cold air, hungry seagulls were flapping down over the river expecting their usual bread morsels.

The van was loaded up with seasonal donations and a whole community were focussed upon meeting another hunger: less visible and more worrying. The Trussell Trust had persuaded Tesco to open their doors for three days – it was a positive atmosphere, but as a pensioner asked: ‘When will they do something?”.