Struggling Single Parents Forced To Turn To Food Banks To Combat Hunger

HuffPost UK speaks to a family choosing between paying bills or buying food as Trussell Trust research reveals households at food banks are “locked in extreme poverty”.

Forced to make the harsh choice between food or warmth, mum-of-one Laura burst into tears when she realised the contents of her fridge and freezer had perished after her electricity was cut off.

It was the moment the 32-year-old single mum realised she needed to swallow her pride and seek help from a food bank for the sake of her three-year-old son.

She isn’t alone. A major research published today reveals 22% of people at food banks are single parents – even though they only make up 5% of the UK population.

The State of Hunger 2019, commissioned by the Trussell Trust and conducted by Heriot-Watt University, is the most authoritative piece of independent research into hunger in the UK to date.

It reveals the average weekly income of people at food banks is only £50 after paying rent and almost one in five have no money coming in at all the month before being referred for emergency food.

The research shows:

  • 94% of people at food banks are destitute

  • Almost three-quarters live in households affected by ill-health or disability

  • More than three-quarters referred to food banks were in arrears

  • 22% of people at food banks are single parents compared to 5% of the UK population aged 16 to 64

For, Laura, who lives in Preston, Lancashire, these are not just statistics but heartbreaking reality as she struggles to cope with her financial predicament.

Laura told HuffPost UK that things have been hard since she left an abusive relationship and that it is tough to cope with life as a single parent, particularly as she doesn’t have any family around to support her.

She used to work as a care assistant but says the crippling costs of childcare made that impossible. She is now on Universal Credit and says every month is full of hand-to-mouth hardships.

“I kept trying to manage with the little I had but it was too difficult,” she told HuffPost UK. “It got to the point where I was constantly having to choose between paying the bills or buying food. So I would just put lots of layers on me and my son and spend money on food instead of bills.

“It is so difficult when you are a single parent as there is so much you have to pay out for and you want to make sure your child isn’t hungry. Luckily, my little boy isn’t in nappies any more as I really don’t know where I would have found the money to pay for them.”

She added: “I left an abusive relationship as I thought it would be best for my son. But when there’s only one set of money coming in and you have to wait for Universal Credit, it is almost impossible to survive.”

Laura says she realised she needed to visit a food bank when her electricity was cut off due to her not having enough money. She admits she felt “ashamed” the first time she visited a food bank but knew she had to do it for her son.

She told HuffPost UK she now regularly visits food banks for emergency food at lean times of the month and it frees up cash for heating her home and making sure her son has all he needs.

She said: “If it was just me I had to worry about, it wouldn’t be as bad. But it is heartbreaking to see my little boy suffer so I have to get all the help I can to make sure he doesn’t go without.”

Claire Bowerham at the Salvation Army food bank in Preston.
Claire Bowerham at the Salvation Army food bank in Preston.
Aasma Day

Claire Bowerham, community centre co-ordinator at the Salvation Army in Preston, which runs a food bank four days a week, says vulnerable people who have fallen through the gaps and don’t know where to seek help are the ones most at risk.

She told HuffPost UK: “We do get a lot of single parents coming in for food parcels. Many of them are actually trying to work but are really struggling to pay for food as well as childcare and bills.

“It is a very emotional time for them and we do get mums coming in and bursting into tears. Many of them find it particularly difficult when they have school uniforms to buy.

“If you have two incomes or two sets of benefits coming in, it makes life a little easier. Even people with two incomes coming in are struggling, so single parents are being particularly hard-hit.”

She added that many people are forced to choose between food or heat but parents prioritise feeding their children. “If we give them a food parcel, at least it releases some cash they can spend on other essentials.”

Natalie Thomas making up food parcels at the Salvation Army food bank in Preston.
Natalie Thomas making up food parcels at the Salvation Army food bank in Preston.
Aasma Day

Natalie Thomas, community centre assistant at the Preston food bank, says people are struggling more since Universal Credit was rolled out in the city. “A lot of people – single parents and others – are working but are in arrears due to Universal Credit payments being taken out of their pay.

“I think the people worst affected are those trying to work due to things like the cost of childcare and jobs with uncertain hours.”

The State of Hunger research states the three drivers hitting people and leaving them with no protection from hunger and poverty are: problems with the benefits system; ill health and challenging life experiences and a lack of local support.

Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said: “People are being locked into extreme poverty and pushed to the doors of food banks.

“Hunger in the UK isn’t about food – it’s about people not having enough money. People are trying to get by on £50 a week and that’s just not enough for the essentials, let alone a decent standard of living.

“Many of us are being left without enough money to cover the most basic costs. We cannot let this continue in our country.”

Faye Goldman, director at Gingerbread, the leading charity working with single parent families, told HuffPost UK: “At Gingerbread we know that single parents are disproportionately affected by the factors highlighted in this report with many struggling to put food on the table for their children due to issues beyond their control.

“The government needs to wake up and realise the true impact of a benefits system that isn’t providing a safety net for those who need it.

“It simply isn’t right that single parents, most of whom are working, are being forced into poverty with little hope of escape.”

The Trussell Trust is calling for three key changes as a priority to protect people from hunger: an end to the five-week wait for Universal Credit; benefit payments which cover the true cost of living and funding for councils to provide local crisis support to be ring-fenced and increased.


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