THE BLOG

One Million Food Bank Parcels for Yet Another Year? Something Isn't Working in Our Society

15/04/2016 08:13

Today the Trussell Trust reveals its foodbank network provided more than one million three-day food supplies to people in crisis in the last year - even more than the previous year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

Benefit delays and changes remain the biggest causes of foodbank use, accounting for 42% of all referrals. These include sanctions, where people's benefits (including mums' and dads') are stopped completely or partially - in our experience often for the smallest 'infractions', such as missing a Job Centre appointment that the person didn't know about because the appointment letter arrived after the appointment was supposed to take place (yes, really).

Delays and changes often seem to be when new claims are made and people wait weeks and sometimes months for decisions to be made, or when existing benefits are stopped while they're reassessed (why can't they continue while they're reassessed?). Sometimes it's simply that agreed payments that people completely rely on don't arrive on the day they should, creating income gaps that cause hunger.

And low income has risen again as a cause from 22% to 23%, as low wages and insecure work combine with high living costs to leave people with too little money for food.

It's so important to measure the help that is given and the reasons it is needed, as the Trussell Trust does: not to pick a fight with the powers that be, but to try to reveal the reality of what is happening across our country and to catalyse change that will stop UK hunger once and for all.

At the moment, The Trussell Trust is the only charity that is able to give a UK-wide snapshot of foodbank use and it is vital that we take this data seriously, even if the findings are hard to stomach.

It's so important because behind these statistics are individual people like you and me, who never dreamt they would one day need to be referred to their local foodbank. Only when we openly and honestly engage with the reasons one million food parcels were needed last year, can we possibly move nearer to finding solutions.

The issues involved may be tricky, but they're not rocket science either. I'll wager you can think of ideas that would help as you read a few of these stories of people I've met in the last few days. These are real people, but their names have been changed.

There's Pauline, the mum who was delighted to get a job as a carer recently, going in to people's homes for 15 minutes at a time to help them. The downside? She is only paid for the time that she's actually in someone's home, not for the travel time to get there, meaning that effectively she will end up being paid below the minimum wage. And who recommended she apply for that arguably unsustainable job? Job Centre Plus, whose data will show a successful 'off benefits, in work' result, even though the likelihood is mum's wages will not be nearly enough to keep food on the table.

And who can live on £13 a month? That's the staggeringly small amount - less than 50 pence per day - that Ben, a young man I met, is receiving after his Universal Credit was sanctioned for missing an appointment because he was ill. It seems so counterproductive: not only does he not have enough money for food, he also doesn't have money for the bus to the library to use the computer there to search for work, jeopardising his benefits further if doesn't walk there every day.

But people do walk, and walk a long way. On Wednesday I talked to Peter, a gentleman in his 50s, on Employment Support Allowance because of arthritis in his hips and depression, who had just walked four miles to get to the foodbank centre. He had no money for the bus and no food in his cupboards, after he had had to pay his rent and service charge on his new temporary bedsit upfront (having previously been homeless). Although one of our centres is nearer his home, it wasn't open until Friday and on balance Peter decided his need for food was greater than his discomfort walking: "I had nothing, I had to put some food in my stomach because of the medication I take, so I had to make the effort." (You'll be glad to know we gave him a lift home.)

Or there is Saida, who I met this week at the foodbank. She has just fled years of extreme abuse and forced servitude, bravely escaping with her small children - only to be told she doesn't qualify for housing help from our local council, and that it will take eight weeks for any social security payments to start. She wept as she talked about her children, and how keeping them safe, happy and fed is the only thing she cares about. She is an awesome woman, and I would like our social security system to be more responsive. Wouldn't you?

Albert Einstein (allegedly) said: 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results'. One million food parcels for yet another year says something isn't working in our society; that something different needs to happen in the year ahead if we're going to see a smaller not larger number next year.

For all the people who had to be referred to foodbanks last year, it's got to be worth it.

Sarah is trustee of Wandsworth Foodbank. Wandsworth foodbank is part of The Trussell Trust foodbank network

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