Sat, Jun 01, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Food banks are facing a crisis: As demand rises, stocks shrink

Social benefit cuts are driving more people to food charities as rising handouts highlight holes in the welfare safety

By Patrick Butler  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

In the 13th-most deprived borough in England, a fragile part of the local emergency welfare ecosystem is in danger of collapse. Haringey Foodbank, in north London, has warned it is struggling to meet the explosion in demand from local people.

The food bank was evicted from its rent-free warehouse in November last year. It still collects donations, but now distributes them from two temporary outlets, a church and a local play center. There is little storage, no room to talk to clients and no office space.

The food bank’s vouchers are distributed to the local job center as well as charities and social workers, who in turn issue them to penniless, hungry clients. The number of emergency food parcels given out has doubled in the past 12 months, and is expected to soar again as UK welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, begin to bite.

Susan Olurotimi, Haringey Foodbank’s coordinator, is worried that if it does not find a new home it will be unable to cope.

“We are willing to do whatever we can but there’s a limit. This is the time the community really needs us and we feel we are failing them,” she says.

The expansion of UK food banks over the past two years is a powerful indicator of growing poverty as well as a sign of dedication and enterprise of the volunteers who created them.

Politicians of all hues have praised food banks, and as local authority and welfare spending is slashed, and existing crisis services such as the Social Fund abolished, the state has become increasingly reliant on them.

However, this month British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey told the House of Commons: “It is completely wrong to suggest that there is a statistical link between the government’s benefit reforms and the provision of food banks.”

However, the crisis in Haringey — and problems in other food banks — is exposing the limits of voluntarism and the precarious nature of the “big society” approach.

In April, after food donations collapsed, Stoke-on-Trent Foodbank in in Staffordshire, England, started turning people away. As stocks depleted, families with children, and those older than 65, were given priority.

“We were having to take difficult decisions about how many vouchers we could fulfill, even for those in crisis,” says the food bank’s coordinator, the Reverend Ron Willoughby.

“We will be forced to say to the agencies: ‘You currently get 20 vouchers a month, but we will only be able to give you 10,’” he adds.

Don Gardner, 68, a retired electrical engineer, runs the Camborn, Pool and Redruth Foodbank in Cornwall.

Last year, it fed 49,000 people. In the first four months of this year alone it has served 29,000. It started three years ago as an emergency service, but has grown into something larger.

“It’s not just crisis situations,” Gardner says. “We are getting people who can’t live on benefits.

Gardner has plentiful contacts, a 22-strong network of local churches and ingenious ways of attracting food donations from all parts of the local community.

Stocks ran out in March and the food bank had to buy groceries from a supermarket. The rising need from people on benefits and from low-paid working families, he says, “is just frightening.”

Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust Foodbank, which oversees more than 345 franchised food banks, says rationing is not a common problem and says that over the long term there will be no supply problem.

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