Last week my foodbank turned six. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about it. I’m happy, of course, that we’ve given out 278,910 meals to people who otherwise may not have been able to eat that week. But I really wish we didn’t exist. What makes me saddest of all – and very worried – is that I can’t see us closing any time soon.
I had been secretly hoping that this would be the year that the Trussell Trust revealed that referrals to its foodbank network had fallen. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe this would actually be the case. But it’s what I wanted to hear. Instead we find that they’ve had the biggest annual increase in their history – a 13% jump on the previous year.
What’s particularly depressing for me is that in Hastings, where I live, I’m in danger of seeing a 13% increase as small, because we’ve seen referrals rise by 52% between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018 compared to the previous year.
We’re now giving out over a ton of food a week!
It’s almost twice as much as we were giving out just two years ago. It is the equivalent of over 2,500 cans of soup a week – not in a big city foodbank, but in a town of only 90,000 people.
For us in Hastings, stocks getting a bit low used to mean we were running short of one or two, maybe three items. Now we’re almost always short of everything and regularly having to ask people to donate more food, more often.
And this isn’t just our story in Hastings. I work for the national charity Jubilee+ that hears similar reports from across the country all the time.
What really worries me is that, as our foodbank manager puts it, what was once our ceiling has now become our floor. Every month of 2017 was a record referral month for us – we saw our busiest January, February, March, April, and so on, since opening in 2012.
But it didn’t stop at the end of the year. This January we received more referrals than any other January since we opened. This February we received more referrals than any other February. This March we received more referrals than any other March...
Since Universal Credit was introduced here on 14 December 2016, our referrals have increased massively. We’ve received 4,966 since then (up to 31 March 2018), which is 38% of all the referrals in our six-year history.
I could tell you stories that would make you sad or mad or both. I could tell you about the man I saw last week who lost two family members four years ago, spiralled into depression as a result, which lead to family breakdown and months of sofa surfing as he was unable to get back on his feet. There was desperation in his eyes as he told me about a job he had just been offered, saying, “They’ve signed a contract so that means it definitely has to go ahead, right?” He needed emergency food to keep him going until the job started, but seemed scared to hope that his life might be about to get back on track.
I could tell you about three suicidal mums we met in one two-hour foodbank session alone, or about a homeless 22-year-old with mental health problems who had nothing but the hoodie and jeans he was wearing, who the council told me they wouldn’t be able to help unless they could reasonably conclude he had slept rough for three nights at below zero temperatures.
I could tell you about the community nurse who had to wait six weeks for her Universal Credit payments to kick in again after she managed to pick up 16 hours of work and a clerical error closed her benefits rather than adjusting them.
But what worries me most is that I think these stories are becoming so familiar that they’re losing their power. We’re getting used to them. They might still provoke outrage among some of us, but only those who are already angry about the flaws in the system.
They don’t seem to be making enough of us angry enough, though. I was at an academic food poverty conference in London last week where it was suggested that most of us now see foodbanks as part of the system. We’re used to them. They no longer stand out as a blot on the landscape of our communities.
But we don’t want to be here. We want to close our doors. We’re not a permanent solution to food poverty. We are treating the symptoms but we need to tackle the root causes. As the famous Desmond Tutu quote says: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
The Trussell Trust’s Left Behind report is part of the process of ‘going upstream’. We must take this seriously. We mustn’t allow foodbanks to become a permanent feature in our society. It’s good to rescue people who have fallen into the river of food poverty. Of course. Churches are at the forefront of doing this and will continue to be. We won’t let people starve on our watch.
But before it escalates any further – before April becomes our busiest April and May our busiest May and June our busiest June – we must go upstream and stop people falling into food poverty in the first place. That’s something that churches and charities and foodbanks cannot do by themselves. It takes law-makers. It takes those in power.
It’s time for the powerful to pay attention. It’s time for proper solutions to food poverty. It’s time for foodbank statistics to start falling. Then, just maybe, the idea of us closing our doors because no one needs us any more can start to become more than a naïve dream.
Natalie Williams oversees social action at King’s Church Hastings, home of Hastings Foodbank