People running food banks across the UK say giving families cash, not food, should be the government’s focus. Image: Staffs Live/Flickr
More than 550 food banks across the UK have written to the prime minister and chancellor warning they could soon hit “breaking point” amid soaring UK poverty.
In the letter, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) warned that its members expressed concern over the “scale of suffering” they were witnessing across the country, with demand for emergency food parcels having doubled at some providers since the end of last year. Some have been forced to reduce the size of food parcels to make supplies go further.
“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that everybody in our society can afford food and other essentials,” the network said. “It is not for volunteers to plug the gaps left by a broken social security system and poorly paid jobs.
“An emergency supply of food cannot resolve someone’s financial crisis and will only act as a temporary sticking plaster.”
The food banks urged ministers to increase benefits by at least eight per cent, in line with inflation – on the day they rise by just 3.1 per cent – and to scrap welfare policies linked to hardship including the five-week wait for a first universal credit payment, benefit sanctions and the no recourse to public funds condition.
“Food banks in our network are facing an unthinkable situation,” Sabine Goodwin, IFAN coordinator, told The Big Issue. “More and more people have nowhere else to turn other than to a food bank yet our members are running out of options.”
She added: “This policy-driven emergency must be urgently addressed. At the very least, social security payments must be uprated in line with inflation without delay.”
Wages must also match the cost of living and jobs made more secure, the food banks urged ministers, while cash payments should be made easily accessible and well-promoted for households in crisis across every local authority.
“It is not for volunteers to plug the gaps left by a broken social security system and poorly paid jobs,” the letter, sent to Downing Street today, read.
Food insecurity and demand for food banks had already hit a record high before the pandemic, as government figures showed 43 per cent of households on universal credit were struggling to afford or access food.
The £20-per-week universal credit increase, introduced in March 2020, saw a 16 per cent drop in “severe and moderate food insecurity” among those households, according to data released by the Department for Work and Pensions last week.
But since the benefit was cut back to pre-Covid levels last October, and the cost of living crisis has placed “yet more pressures and impossible choices” on families across the UK, demand has accelerated at such a rate that food banks could soon be out of options to help people, the letter said.
“Food bank teams are often over-stretched and exhausted and could well be unable to continue to pick up the pieces,” the members wrote. “Volunteers cannot be expected to cope both physically and mentally with such relentless demand.
“What’s more, people who used to donate to food banks are now needing to access help themselves. Our members are struggling to find the resources to provide adequate food parcels as the scale of demand and food and energy price increases impact on the services they run.”
Citizens Advice referred nearly 25,000 people to food banks or other types of crisis support in March, a 44 per cent increase on the same time period last year.
“We stepped up to what at the time were unprecedented levels of need at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Kathy Bland at Leominster Food Bank. “We are now facing a much worse crisis and one that will spiral out of control if this letter is not taken seriously.
“We are volunteers and cannot meet the levels of need we are facing. A bag of food is not sufficient – people need benefits to be enough to be able to live on and to offer their children a basic standard of living.”
As well as meeting the immediate need for food parcels, IFAN members have been working with local authorities to roll-out “cash first” referral leaflets, which signpost people to grants, funds and benefits they might be entitled to and increase the amount of cash they have to be able to make their own choices about food and other essentials.
Rishi Sunak has been widely condemned by campaigners for his refusal to increase benefits in line with the real cost of living. Inflation is expected to hit nearly eight per cent this month, but social security payments will rise by just 3.1 per cent, based on economic data from September 2021.
It is the greatest real-terms cut in the value of basic unemployment benefits in 50 years, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
“Charitable food aid has been an inadequate and unsustainable stop gap measure to growing poverty in the UK for 12 years,” IFAN told Sunak and Boris Johnson. “We urge you to immediately address the root causes of the poverty driving the need for our services. Food banks are reaching breaking point.”
A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures people are facing with the cost of living, which is why we’re providing support worth £22 billion across the next financial year and, as was approved by parliament, benefits are being uprated by the usual measure, September’s inflation figure.
“Our package of support includes putting an average of £1,000 more per year into the pockets of working families via changes to universal credit, cutting fuel duty and helping households with their energy bills. We have also boosted the minimum wage by more than £1,000 a year for full-time workers and are raising National Insurance thresholds so people keep more of what they earn.”
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