06/11/2018 00:02 GMT | Updated 06/11/2018 10:19 GMT

From Universal Credit To Food Banks: How Benefits System Change Is 'Pitchforking' People Into Poverty

'Some days are so bleak, it feels like we’re dealing with a disaster.'

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Major Alex Cadogan, leader of the Salvation Army, Preston, says Universal Credit is 'a machine pushing people into poverty'

With hunger growling in his stomach, a man in his 30s collected an emergency food parcel, ripped the bag open, unscrewed a jar of peanut butter and began frantically scooping it into his mouth.

For Natalie Thomas, community centre assistant at the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston, incidents like this depict the real life impact of hunger caused by poverty.

Last week, when HuffPost UK visited her at work, she described the scene. “This man was so hungry, he was eating peanut butter from his hand and pouring Rice Krispies down his throat. It was incredibly sad.

“We see real hunger and some people just burst into tears when we hand them their emergency food packages.”

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Natalie Thomas packing food bags at the Salvation Army centre in Preston

Cases like this are becoming a common sight at the foodbank as they have seen a massive increase in demand for emergency food provision.

Staff say the situation has reached peak levels and claim the roll-out of Universal Credit is forcing a large number people to seek food parcels for the first time.

On one single day this week, they gave out 64 food parcels. 

And new figures from the Trussell Trust, a leading UK foodbank provider, show their centres handed out 658,048 three-day emergency food packages to people in crisis between April and September 2018 – 232,761 of which went to children.

The charity said it had seen a 13% rise in demand since 2017 and the most common cause for referral was benefits failing to cover essential living costs and delays to benefit payments.

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Claire Bowerman, community centre co-ordinator, has seen a huge increase in demand for food parcels

Claire Bowerman, community centre co-ordinator at the Salvation Army centre, said: “Seven years ago, we were giving out 30 food parcels a month. Now it is 900. It’s absolutely frightening.

“But these are people in genuine need. Many are telling us they’re having problems because of Universal Credit so have no food or money so are referred to us. We can only give them one food parcel a month because of the sheer demand.”

People who are already struggling and are on the breadline are being pitchforked into debt by the system that is supposed to be helping them

Major Alex Cadogan, leader of the Salvation Army in Preston, says they are witnessing the direct human impact of the migration over to Universal Credit.

The government announced on Monday that, under the new managed migration system which applies from July 2019, families will only have to wait three weeks for their first payment, rather than five. But that change comes too late for many people.

Major Cadogan said: “People who are already struggling and are on the breadline are being pitchforked into debt by the system that is supposed to be helping them.

“People are coming to us in real despair not knowing how they’re going to cope. It’s horrible.

“The time delay between one set of claims being shut down and waiting for all their relevant claims to be merged and consolidated into Universal Credit means they are having to wait five or six weeks for money.

“We are confident everyone coming to us is genuine as the referrals are coming from verified sources.

“Who wants to come and beg for a bag of food? People only do that if they really have to.

“Nobody except the wealthy in our society has six weeks of money in their bank account they can draw on to survive while they wait for Universal Credit.

“Universal Credit may well ultimately be a good thing in the long run by consolidating all benefit payments. But at the moment, it is actually a machine that’s making poverty worse as people are being put into debt.

“Some days are so bleak, it feels like we’re dealing with a disaster.”

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Major Alex Cadogan with some of the food bags ready for collection at the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston

HuffPost UK spent two days at the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston and spoke to many of the people coming in for help.

One mum who had been referred to the foodbank lost the contents of her fridge and freezer after her electricity was cut off when she couldn’t pay her bills.

Another family with five children awaiting Universal Credit were referred for emergency food as all they had to eat at home were biscuits.

One woman picking up a food package for the first time told how she had received her first Universal Credit payment.  After deductions for rent and social loans, she was only left with £10 for the month. She also has a health condition which means she needs food with her medication.

When asked by HuffPost UK if she would like to share her Universal Credit story, she admitted: “I’m starving. I just want to go home and eat some of this food.”

A 21-year-old single mum was referred to the foodbank with her two-year-old child by her GP. She rang the centre in tears saying she had no nappies for him.

She told us: “I was working as a support worker but had to leave because of anxiety problems.

“I am just not getting enough to live on and Universal Credit has led me into debt with everyone.

“I owe gas and electric bills and I owe nursery money. If I don’t pay my rent, I will get evicted.

“I have no food in the house and feel embarrassed I’ve had to be referred to a food bank.

“If it was just me, I would plod on. But it’s not fair on my two-year-old.”  

‘It Is The Government Who Should Be Embarrassed’

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Mark Schwalbe, 55, has been to university six times and has numerous degrees and diplomas - but is now reliant on a foodbank to survive

While some people who come to the Preston Salvation Army foodbank want to talk about their situation, others want to leave as quickly as possible.

Thomas, who has worked at the centre for six years, explained: “Some people are so ashamed, they won’t even look you in the eye. 

“They are grateful for the food but are embarrassed about the situation they’re in. Many have never had to ask for help in their lives.”

Major Cadogan said people seeking help from the foodbank include teachers, nurses and social workers who have fallen on hard times.

He said: “People who were professionals often end up here. It only takes something like the break-up of a relationship or losing their job and they can suddenly end up making a claim for the first time.

“With Universal Credit, it seems as if people are penalised for life, giving them a rough ride.”

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Mark Schwalbe. 55, who is says he needs emergency food packages to survive

 Mark Schwalbe, 55, has been to university six times and has numerous qualifications including a Masters. He is a former psychiatric nurse and former care manager at a South Yorkshire local authority.

He is disabled and has a multitude of health problems including long-term depression and anxiety.

Schwalbe does voluntary work in the community, but nothing he is paid for, and relies on benefits.

He told us: “I realised I have a lot to give and would rather work for nothing than do nothing. But as a result I am struggling.”

Schwalbe says his health deteriorated in 2012 after he stopped to help a young woman and child whose car had broken down, and he ended up being clipped by a lorry and suffering a head injury.

He said: “I live frugally but a few months ago, I was down to nothing and ended up being referred here for a food parcel.

“I don’t want to be in this situation but I am not ashamed. It is the Government who should be ashamed.

“It is totally wrong that in the 21st century people in Britain are going hungry and having to rely on emergency food packages.”

Preston is one of dozens of local authorities where Universal Credit has begun to be rolled out.

It was introduced in the city in July but most people haven’t been migrated on to it yet - only those new to benefits or with a change in circumstances.

Emma Revie, chief executive of The Trussell Trust which supports a network of 428 foodbanks, said: ”Waiting weeks for Universal Credit, not being able to access support, receiving payments that just don’t cover the cost of essentials - these are the things forcing people to use foodbanks.

“The changes in the budget will make a real difference to many people supported by Universal Credit in the future. But in a country that created a benefits system to anchor people from poverty, it is imperative that the Government goes further.”

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A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman told us: “The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.

“Universal Credit replaces an out-of-date, complex benefits system that discouraged people moving into work.

“We have just announced that we will be increasing the amount people can earn on Universal Credit by £1,000 before their payment begins to be reduced, to ensure work always pays and introduced £1bn to help people moving over from the old benefits system to Universal Credit.

“We also recently announced a £39m partnership with Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support, which will help people make and manage their Universal Credit claim.”