It’s a brisk, bright February morning in Newcastle’s West End, and on the corner between Benwell Grove and West Road, a queue is forming.
This was the same queue that formed here in 2015, when a production crew arrived to shoot a devastating food bank scene for I, Daniel Blake, a film that condemned the cruelty and failures of Britain’s welfare system. It’s the same queue that’s formed here every week, twice a week, in the six years since the film was released.
When I, Daniel Blake was filming, the Newcastle West End food bank group only ran two centres in the city. Today, they operate seven, including the Venerable Bede Church where The Big Issue has arrived to spend a day with the organisation.
Inside, a group of eight volunteers launch into a well-practised routine, laying out an assortment of goods for collection, though today – as one volunteer remarks to another – there’s no frozen food.
Ten minutes before opening, the group are ushered into a small circle by Carole Rowland, welfare manager for the food bank. “It’s important to remember that tensions are high at the moment and we need to be mindful of that,” she advises everyone. “People are getting more desperate.”
In April, further rises to national insurance, council tax and energy bills will heap yet more misery upon millions of people.
“I’m worried for people’s mental health. I’m worried for their self-esteem. I’m worried, frankly, for some lives,” Rowland says.
Beyond inflation, consumer price indexes and interest rates, this is the real price of the cost of living crisis – millions of people unable to feed, clothe or provide for themselves in the world’s fifth-largest economy.
It’s here, in one of Britain’s 2,200 food banks, that the crisis is now playing out, with an army of volunteers responding to an already-overwhelming level of need. But with April just around the corner, they fear the worst is yet to come.
10am: ‘I’ve lost too many people’
As small family groups and individuals begin filing through the doors of the Venerable Bede Church, Rowland and I take a seat tucked in the corner of the hall. One by one, vouchers are handed in at the welcome desk, where a box of chocolates is laid out within reach of small children as they come through the door.
As a parade of people pass through the hall, Rowland launches into a history of the West End organisation. Newcastle Central, where the Venerable Bede church hosts its twice-weekly sessions, has the highest rate of child poverty in the north east, at almost 50 per cent. In the city as a whole, 14 per cent of households are living in fuel poverty.
“‘Entrenched’ is the word I would use,” says Rowland, describing the levels of poverty in the area. It was because of “sheer, obvious need”, she says, that the food bank opened its doors in 2013 – and the demand hasn’t let up since.
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Following the introduction of Universal Credit in 2017, the number of people arriving at the food bank annually jumped dramatically. Before the pandemic hit, numbers reached 42,000. By the following March, they’d climbed again to 52,000.
This is far from unique. Over the past five years, demand for The Trussell Trust’s food banks has risen by 128 per cent. Between April 1 2020 and March 31 2021, 2.5 million emergency parcels were distributed by the charity – with almost a million (980,000) going to children.
Presented as figures alone, the scale of this need is hard for many to comprehend. But Rowland has seen first-hand the scars poverty carves through families and entire communities, driving addiction issues, disease and severe mental health problems.
“Since I became a volunteer four years ago, I’ve lost too many people, either to suicide, cancer or illness,” she says. “I’m not going to beat around the bush, poverty contributed to their demise.”
11am: ‘Nothing is keeping up with inflation’
Midway through our conversation, Rowland is called away: a young girl has turned up asking about a bus fare to get to school for an exam.
This is a pattern that emerges throughout the day, with volunteers and staff attending to all manner of issues beyond food parcels. Someone has lost their home; they need help but can’t speak English; they have rats living in their walls.
During this time, it’s estimated up to 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres closed, while 940 youth centres also vanished. The crisis in the NHS, accelerated by the pandemic, has left more than six million people waiting to be treated. Without food banks stepping up to fill the void, it’s hard not to wonder where their clients would otherwise end up.
“[David] Cameron talked about wanting a ‘Big Society’. That’s all well and good, but we need the money and resources to actually help people,” Rowland says.
Without such help materialising, Rowland fears for her clients and the food bank.
“We’re getting so many people coming through. Nothing is keeping up with the inflation or cost of living. I recently had one elderly couple come through the door crying.
“They’d been sitting in the dark and cold with the heating off because they were so frightened at what it would cost,” she says. Rowland becomes emotional, her voice cracking slightly as she speaks. “These people have been failed.”
It’s clear from the indignation in Rowland’s voice that she feels the food bank is fighting an uphill battle, with her clients forced to live in increasingly impossible conditions. “All the government does is tweak things. They give with one hand then take away with the other,” one client recently complained to her.
12pm: ‘We need to look at poverty in a different way’
As the volunteers begin packing up the hall to make way for an incoming Taekwondo session, Richard Whinney, who’ll be taking me to the afternoon food bank in Byker, introduces himself.
Whinney is helping the food bank to develop its “pathways out of hunger” programme, which offers individualised welfare, advice and signposting to clients. The service was set up due to information on benefits “not always being forthcoming”, says Rowland, with food bank staff helping clients claim the benefits they’re entitled to.
The pathways programme is an antidote, says Whinney, to the philosophy that poverty is a temporary crisis, solvable by simply throwing money at the problem.
“We talk about people falling into poverty as if you can just fall out of poverty. It doesn’t work like that. We need to look at poverty in a different way other than just as a temporary crisis – it often starts in childhood, and it can be a lifetime thing,” he explains.
The programme is already proving successful, with clients securing money owed by the state, getting into work and settling into suitable homes – though Whinney says the process of gaining trust can be lengthy.
“You don’t click your fingers and it happens – it can take years and years,” he says.
1pm: ‘The loneliness is just terrible’
“It’s going to be a tough one today,” Anthony, a volunteer, remarks as we battle through the fierce wind into the warmth of St Silas Church. Already, a queue is mounting outside.
Here in Byker, a formerly industrial, working-class area of the city, the demographic the food bank receives is mostly “single people, often single men who are experiencing homelessness and sometimes addiction issues”, Whinney tells me as we lay out trestle tables.
The arrangement we make with the furniture is intentional – a volunteer is stationed at each separate table around the room in order to maximise the amount of social interaction each client receives when they come for their parcels, Whinney explains. “The loneliness [clients experience] is just terrible.”
Courtney Knowles, a staff member newly hired to offer welfare advice to food bank clients, arrives around 1.30pm. At her former role at a Sunderland food bank, she tells me, things were evidently getting worse for many.
“Prior to Covid hitting, it was mainly benefit claimants and single-parent households who we were dealing with. Now, we’re getting dual-income families where both parents are working but can’t afford to get by.”
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The mood is solemn and anxious as clients line up in the atrium of the church to collect their parcels. Most keep their eyes to the ground as they pass through the door to hand in their voucher and collect their items. Volunteers engage every client as they pass through, but conversation is mostly muted. In the queue, little discussion takes place, until a sniping remark threatens to bubble over into a full-blown argument: two young men are accusing one another of pushing in front.
Whinney quickly resolves the disagreement with a calm intervention that feels well-rehearsed. Arguments like this are not uncommon, Knowles later tells me, given the pressures and hardships so many face.
“Can you blame them?” another volunteer asks. “I can understand why people get angry when they’re getting sanctioned. I spoke to one client who had to choose between picking up his child from school or going to the Jobcentre as his wife was in hospital. He was forced to take the sanction.”
Around 3pm, a woman named Michelle comes through the doors of the church. Once, she volunteered at a food bank herself, and now she’s forced to rely on one.
“It’s just the price of everything, it’s constantly going up,” she says, her voice tinged with disbelief, as volunteers pack up her food.
Michelle lives at home with her son, daughter and grandson, and has watched powerlessly as the price of everything from clothing to fresh vegetables has risen beyond reach as the cost of living crisis bites.
“I have to shop around for everything now. I used to make pies at home but now, by the time you’ve bought the corned beef and pastry, you might as well buy a cheap pre-made one,” she says.
Without prices falling, Michelle says, she can’t see how she’ll be able to afford groceries and household bills. While full of praise for the generosity of the food bank, she is far less complimentary about the government.
“I don’t think [the government] have any real idea what things are like,” she says emphatically. “They promise the world and then get into Parliament and don’t deliver. They’re all just for themselves.”
4pm: ‘There’s no simple solution’
By the close of the day, the Venerable Bede and St Silas churches have seen 100 people pass through their doors. It’s a pretty high number, Whinney tells me, but demand does fluctuate week-to-week.
As one volunteer returns from a coffee run, the remainder gather in a corner of the church, sipping and nibbling on biscuits, to reflect on the day’s sessions. As I listen to them talk, their deep frustration, determination and feeling of constantly swimming against the tide is evident.
“There’s no simple solution to all this,” Whinney muses, gesturing vaguely to the room.
“When we talk about poverty, we are talking about a need which is mental and physical, as well as a matter of external resources. Just giving people money won’t help if they’re living in appalling housing conditions, suffering with poor mental health, obesity or have had a poor education.”
It was hoped by many, including former adviser on homelessness Dame Louise Casey, that the pandemic would spark a “Beveridge moment” for the UK.
By beefing up the welfare safety nets that proved so thin throughout lockdowns, Casey said, the government could avoid the legacy of the pandemic being “the quadrupling of food banks”. As I sit among piles of crates and bags stuffed with everyday supplies, it feels clear this has failed to materialise.
The West End does have high hopes for its pathways programme, backed by staff and volunteers whose dedication to their clients is unwavering. The aim is to roll out similar programmes in food banks across the country.
Yet as the cost of living crisis threatens to push more people into destitution, their success will ultimately depend on the one thing food banks are always lacking: resources.
“We don’t have long enough during the week to do this. There are loads more people out there who could do with our support,” Whinney says. “We’re just trying to see what we can do with the situation that’s in front of us, and thinking, well, if I don’t do this, this person is going away with no help,” he adds, as he steps out into the car park and pulls the church doors closed.
Next week, as every week, the West End volunteers will be back here again, doing all they can to make every individual feel they’re cared for and valued. Most of the time, it’s about celebrating small successes.
“We have a client, an Iranian refugee, who can’t speak a word of English and lives alone,” Anthony tells me, loading up the food bank van with now-empty crates. “He must be dreadfully lonely – but this week he got onto Google translate and managed to communicate with us for the first time.”
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