Birmingham Central Foodbank looks no different to a typical High Street café. Comfy sofas, plenty of tables laden with biscuits, and endless cups of proper tea and coffee available from a counter. Even the wall decorations feel a bit like a Costa Coffee shop.
But unlike Costa, visitors here are greeted by an army of smiling volunteers and are asked discreetly whether this is their first visit, which one of up to 160 agencies referred them, if they take milk or sugar – and whether they prefer pasta or rice.
A whirlwind of activity behind the scenes then results in shopping trolleys laden with Tesco-branded bags filled with food. Many people leave as quick as they came, looking to the outside world as though they’ve just done a big weekly shop.
People are being left with nowhere to turn Charlotte Neville
“We make sure all the bags are from one supermarket for that reason. It keeps it discreet,” Charlotte Neville, the foodbank’s manager, tells HuffPost UK. “When people come in for the first time, you can see that they have few positive feelings, but the cafe space helps them feel just a little more relaxed.”
The whole process takes just a few minutes, but last year this foodbank provided 5,312 emergency food parcels to people. The figure is an increase of 17% on 2016.
The reason for the sudden jump, according to Neville, is complex - but essentially boils down to one problem. “The changes to the benefit system, especially Universal Credit, meant that, by the end of last year, almost everyone that was attending was because of that change in benefits,” she says.
Combined with an especially cold winter, the changes have prompted a rise in the number of people facing food and fuel poverty.
The food bank is housed within Birmingham City Church, just off the busy Parade leading to the centre, and at the heart of the Ladywood parliamentary constituency which, according to government figures, had more people on unemployment benefits than anywhere in Britain last year. The facility sees many clients who are referred by the Jobcentre Plus directly opposite.
New single claimants are automatically signed up to Universal Credit, which is designed to replace six existing benefits into one monthly payment, but that has been beset by problems, including a five-week wait for an initial payment.
“We see people moving from an older benefit onto Universal Credit, and we see interrupted payments where someone might have moved to a new address or if they have missed an appointment,” Neville adds. “Benefit delays occur when someone is waiting for a first payment or waiting for a decision as to whether they will get a payment at all.”
Universal Credit is designed to be managed through a website “portal” but all too often, Neville says, she sees people without the skills to navigate the system. “Those with problems accessing support online are left with nowhere to turn.”
There are concerns people fall through the gaps and lose out financially, and the Trussell Trust, to which Birmingham Central Foodbank is affiliated, has warned before about the policy’s impact across the country.
From one visit, the impact the service was having was clear. One woman appeared to arrive close to tears but left half an hour later with a huge smile carrying several bags of supplies. The service has helped up to 50 visitors a day in recent months.
“The moment I think sums up our work here is when a gentleman was just standing and staring at us working, I asked if he was OK and he said ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen kindness today’,” Carole Nicholls, who volunteers at the food bank, recalls.
“One of things that has changed in recent years is that we just don’t know who is coming to us to donate or coming to us in need,” she adds. “You can’t tell by looking at someone. It feels as though it could be any one of us.”
Much-needed donations come in all sizes, from supermarket collections, corporate fundraising, to anonymous online grocery deliveries arriving without notice. “Everything helps us,” Neville says. “We had teams from Barclays and HSBC come to help us move everything from our old warehouse recently. It’s such a boost for us.”
The team have observed a slight drop in the numbers of people calling upon the food bank for help, but Neville expects the numbers to rise again.
“I think we will see an increase even on last year. And it’s not winter yet - that’s when demand is always highest.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions told HuffPost last year: “The reasons for food bank use are wide and complex, and for this report to link it to any one issue would be misleading.”
The statement added that advance payments are widely available from the start of a Universal Credit claim, and urgent cases are fast-tracked, so “no one should be without funds”,
“We know the majority of Universal Credit claimants are confident in managing their money. Budgeting support and direct rent payments to landlords are also available to those who need them,” the DWP said.
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