Why do Brits use foodbanks? On the 21 April 2015, The Trussell Trust confirmed that 1,084,604 people were given 3 days' worth of emergency food over the last year. That's a 19% increase since last year. 396,997 of them were children. Shocked by the figures, I went to Brixton foodbank to find out more about why so many people are turning to The Trussell Trust for help.
"Our mission is to cease to exist," said Jon, the streetwise Manager of Brixton foodbank. But they haven't. While David Cameron has been praising 'buccaneering Britain', it seems ironic that foodbank use, up from 123k in 2010 to 1m in 2015, is one of the great growth success stories during the last five years. So why has foodbank use gone viral?
From what Brixton foodbank told me, it's the Government that has been harming the most marginalised and frail in British society. At the heart of every response I heard about the reasons for foodbank growth, each person pointed to austerity. "It's the unfair sanctions, cuts and welfare system," said Beth, a volunteer at the foodbank, that was behind the growth she had seen over the last two years. For example, sanctioning, where you lose the right to your benefits for missing a Job Centre appointment, appears cruel to Beth. You're left adrift without money for food if you fall foul of it."If you were sick at work, you wouldn't lose your pay," said Beth firmly, appalled at the lack of empathy.
Of course Beth could be biased; however, the data suggests she is not. Brixton foodbank's crisis voucher statistics - which are exchanged for three days of emergency food after signed off by care professionals, such as GPs - back up what Beth and the others were saying. Over the last year, Benefit Delays (3rd) and Benefit Changes (4th) were two of the main reasons for voucher. First place reason? Low Income. Unemployment (8th) and Homelessness (9th) were way down the list. As if to support the foodbank's data, recent research from Oxford University confirms a cut in central welfare spending leads to growth in foodbank use. But if the system is apparently harming its own people, how?
From what the Brixton volunteers told me, if you consider benefit changes alone, there's a lack of understanding or compassion for the end user. "They're asking some people who have no budgeting skills to manage their own money," said a frustrated Jon. "The rent change is an impending disaster. Instead of rent money going straight to the landlords, it's going to go into their [users] bank accounts." Accounts of people who have literacy and numeracy problems. People who, as Hannah another volunteer explained to me, don't have the most basic computer skills many of us take for granted. Alison Inglis-Jones, Trustee and Head of Public Affairs for The Trussell Trust, added that "many people on low incomes are extremely good at budgeting, but some people with various difficulties particularly in literacy and numeracy could struggle if support is not made available to them". Throw in domestic violence, abuse, gang and mental health problems and it appears people in need, already seeking help just to eat, are being left resolve serious issues by themselves.
"She doesn't have no one," explained a community carer regarding a distressed client that she was looking after. "She's been ill and she's had to stop working, but she gets no help," said the carer sadly. "She has been working for the last ten years, but because she's fallen through the gap in the system, she's having use us. Ten years," said Jon, emphasising 'ten years' with evident disdain. I asked the carer how she felt about the system. "Very disappointed."
What's little understood about foodbanks is that they don't just provide emergency food. They provide a range of other welfare services as well. "We're not a soup kitchen," explains Jon, hastening to add he wasn't slagging off soup kitchens. Jon showed me around the supplies of toiletries and diapers along with the advice sheets for problems ranging from domestic violence to housing help. Brixton foodbank has a dedicated advice volunteer who helps out with the smorgasbord of challenges that lead to people needing the foodbank's help in the first place. This seemed to me to mirror the support one might expect to be made available from the State.
"No one," was the answer when I asked Jon who would be doing this if the foodbank didn't exist. "If you think of all the resources, the logistical organisation, the dedicated staff you need, no one else could do it. It's a large operation." A large operation perhaps more fitting for government?
When I probed Jon how many visits he had had from the central government departments who oversee welfare policies, "Never," was his blunt answer. "They've recently come to local meetings with us at the Council," said Jon, though more in a tone of a parent trying to get a child to listen for the hundredth time. Brixton to Westminster takes less than half an hour on the tube.
I asked Alison, if Brixton's picture reflects the national view. "Yes it does. In particular, holiday periods from schools are pressure points for families. It can tip them over - especially the long summer holiday."
After leaving the foodbank, I went to Brixton Village to talk to diners about what was happening in their local community. I asked Zoe, a colour-blocking health worker enjoying a coffee, what she thought. "It feels like the government is taxing you twice by asking you to pay for welfare, but then also relying on our donated welfare, like the foodbank to help out," said Zoe as she tapped her teaspoon on the wooden table with irritation. "I just don't understand why they're not giving a **** about people who can't eat. It's wrong."
When I walked into Brixton foodbank they had TLC's 'No scrubs' playing through the speakers. 'A scrub is a guy who can get no love from me', one the lyrics, kept coming back to the front of my mind. Did the Trussell Trust volunteers feel like they and their clients were effectively 'getting no love' from the government? "Please listen to us," was Alison's plea when I asked her what was the key action politicians could take to help. A lack of joined-up thinking to resolve the root cause seems evident.
With over one million people using Trussell Trust foodbanks, I couldn't help but reflect on what Jon said: he wanted to be out of a job for the right reasons. The foodbank doesn't want to exist. Jon, however, looks like he might be working for a while yet.