Sun, Jul 22, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The rise of food banks in the UK

Once the epitome of the welfare state, the UK has cut social benefits, creating a new class of poor that cannot feed their families

By Amelia Gentleman  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Lance Liu

An hour after the Hope Centre food bank opens up for the Tuesday afternoon distribution session, a volunteer apologetically tapes an A4 sheet to the glass doors, announcing “Sorry, No Food.” Plastic bags full of tinned food and supermarket donations of produce approaching its sell-by date are being distributed to feed 79 people and there is very little left on the shelves in a storeroom of this church in Coventry, England.

“We’ve been back to the warehouse, but we’re still struggling,” said Karen Sumner, one of the food bank volunteers. “We should be open for two hours, but we usually run out of food after an hour.”

A man arrives in the rain, very distressed to see the “No Food” sign. This afternoon, he has walked 5km from his home to collect a food parcel, arriving just after the session began, but because he had no ID on him, he then had to walk half a kilometer into the center of town to get a letter from a charity certifying that he is who he claims to be, and then half a kilometer back to be issued with some food. His social benefits have been stopped for reasons that are not clear to him, and he faces the prospect of a 5km walk home again, with no food and no money, until volunteers agree to let him join the crowd of 30 people still waiting in the church’s cafe, and promise to find him something to take away.

“There’s nothing at home. If I don’t get this food I’ll end up shoplifting,” he said.

A sign on the wall, written in chalk on a menu blackboard, advises him: “Psalm 25:8: the Lord is good and does what is right.”

Until 18 months ago there were no food banks in Coventry; now there are 11 across the city. There has been a similarly dramatic rise in the food bank phenomenon nationwide. The largest network of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, has doubled the number of people it feeds over the past year and reports that three new food banks are opening every week.

A large crowd in the Hope Centre is from Romania, and said they were waiting for food because collecting scrap metal and washing cars was not enough to make ends meet. A bigger number was there because of benefit delays and cuts, or simply because they were no longer able to make their low wages stretch out enough.

A local supermarket has delivered a load of stock just about to reach its sell-by date (it does not want to be named, to avoid getting caught up in discussion on the merits of giving food that is about to expire to the hungry) and today it is offloading industrial quantities of iced buns, which several families take home by the dozen.

The boom in the UK’s food banks reflects a number of worrying and complicated trends. As well as rising unemployment, more people are seeing their hours cut at work. For the past couple of years, charities have been warning that a shift to a less generous way of uprating benefits in line with inflation, combined with rising food and fuel prices, would make life more difficult for people claiming benefits. Then there is the start of a new, harsher benefits regime, as a result of which it seems that more claimants are having their payments sanctioned — cut or stopped entirely — if they miss appointments. At the same time, the state system of a social fund and crisis loans is being wound down, so emergency cash payments from the welfare system for those deemed to be in extreme need are now exceptionally difficult to procure. About 43 percent of visitors to Trussell Trust distribution centers nationwide come because of changes to their benefits or a crisis loan being refused.

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