Around 1 million children under 10 are facing a bleak Christmas day, lacking basics such as a warm winter coat and fresh food, a leading charity has said.
It’s a startling statistic, and one that reflects what Action for Children describes as the “double blow” of local council cuts and the controversial roll-out of Universal Credit, which has prompted “Dickensian levels of poverty”.
So this year, as austerity bites across the UK, the charity has decided to help transform Christmas for those hardest hit. With a new survey revealing that nearly half of parents have been cutting back on gifts and treats for Christmas, and a quarter racking up piles of debt to afford them, the charity has launched a foodbank to distribute food and toys to families most in need.
HuffPost UK went to Bristol to witness the action first-hand as an army of volunteers sorted food and gift donations into generous hampers to give to 144 families on Christmas Eve.
It all started at 10am as two huge vans pulled in – packed to the brim with food. The containers were bursting with ingredients for Christmas day – chicken, salmon and ducks to different assortment of bread, cakes and fruits. Flowers were also among the boxes unpacked which, a volunteer explained, were given to parents as a festive treat.
As the hampers, donated by the grocery service Ocado, were being packed, some families arrived early, keen to pick up their share.
In a small office space near the sorting area, an array of stocking fillers – toys, sweets and children’s books – were being sorted and one volunteer, Joan, explained that families were being encouraged to help themselves to what they saw.
One father arrived and said he had a family in need, with children on the edge of being taken into care. There with his two-year-old son, he was given a hamper and some toys to give to his children on Christmas Day.
A family-of-six turned up to collect their hamper with their youngest child, only a few months old, in his mother’s arms. Having received their goods, the couple asked a volunteer where they could donate excess children’s clothes. The co-ordinator of the foodbank, Sandy Cheetham, who knows the family, said it was touching “to see people with so little want to give back”.
Some delights were simpler. An 8-year-old boy, who had never had cherries, was obsessed with the packaged fruits that were in his family’s hamper. He couldn’t take his eyes off them, repeating how “wicked” it was to have them. “My heart is going to burst like the cherries!” he joked.
Data released by the Trussell Trust charity shows December was the busiest month for foodbanks last year. The charity’s network provided 159,388 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis; of which 65,622 went to children – a 49% increase on the monthly average.
A further rise was expected this year, with increasing levels of foodbank use earlier in the year setting December up to be the busiest month for foodbanks recorded.
In November, a investigation into austerity and local cuts by a United Nations special rapporteur on poverty accused the British government inflicting “unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world”.
Professor Philip Alston spent 12 days investigating the impact at a community level of cutbacks to public services, combined with the roll-out of Universal Credit and Brexit, and said: “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
Action for Children’s chief executive, Julie Bentley, said it was a “shocking truth” that many children in Britain would be waking up on Christmas day cold and hungry. “No parent should be forced to face the appalling choice between ‘eating or heating’ at Christmas, but this is the reality for far too many in the UK today.”
But the sounds from Downing Street are very different. In October, an upbeat Theresa May told her party at its annual political conference that the “age of austerity is over”, almost exactly a decade into the government’s programme of cuts. The prime minister signalled a loosening of the purse strings and a change in political policy as she told voters: “There are better days ahead”.
But Bentley said there is little evidence of this at ground level, where “every day at Action for Children, we see first-hand the impossible choices that families ... have to make.
“We’re helping thousands of families keep their heads above water through budgeting, providing a meal or making sure they get help from foodbanks.”
After the food distribution had been completed, co-ordinator Sandy Cheetham reflected upon what she described as a “wonderful” afternoon.
She told HuffPost UK: “We had exactly the right amount of turkeys for each family which I’m absolutely delighted with as we thought we were going to be five short but we were not.
“I just had a duty social worker call me to say ‘thank you’ - they’d delivered a hamper to a woman who was in need but did not know she was receiving one and was absolutely delighted! It means that her family is going to have turkey tomorrow!
“What we don’t think of, what we take for granted, what most people might think nothing of – means the world to others. That is why we do what we do.”
Cheetham explained that there has been an increased need for these unofficial food banks and, for the first time, Action For Children has given its own staff hampers – especially single mothers who are struggling on benefits and not able to work more than 16 hours per week.
Another volunteer, Jackie, told Huffpost UK: “I hope this keeps on going every year – the community just love it. The fact that this service is for older people, as well as children in need, is fantastic.
“The diversity of what we do is great – from the elderly and the homeless, to pastors in churches who are opening up places to cook for whoever regardless of age; for people who normally wouldn’t have a Christmas dinner.”