Cass Francis, who was one of the founding members of Southend Foodbank a decade ago. Image: Trussell Trust
Winter is coming and food banks are bracing for tougher times than they have ever seen before.
More than 600,000 people are likely to need the support of food banks between December and February, according to forecasts from the Trussell Trust.
This will mean around one million food parcels need to be distributed – the most parcels ever provided across this period. It is an average of one parcel every eight seconds.
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The Big Issue is shining a light on the situation at food banks across the country as we approach the coldest months. These are the words of three frontline workers about the desperate state of need at their food banks.
Beryl Bellew, North Liverpool Foodbank
We are dreading winter. One of the questions on everybody’s lips is: ‘Do you have any fuel vouchers? And can you tell me where to top up for gas or electric, or help with my fuel?’ There are places we can pinpoint for advice, but we just don’t have the actual money or tokens to give to people. That is a worry.
Myself and one other lady started the food bank at St Andrew’s Church 12 years ago. It was just a small cupboard with food in the corner in the church hall. In the first couple of weeks, we hardly had anyone come. Gradually that built up and now we have 220 volunteers.
Over the last couple of months, it has really started to bite. The other week we actually ran out of food. We’ve come close to that before but we had never ran out of our basic supplies. Our shelves were virtually empty.
We scrambled around giving people what we could. We had people who came in and I just had to turn them away. I gave them something to get them over that day and the next day and directed them to where the next food bank was. Unfortunately, because we open on a Friday, that sometimes means they’re going to go the whole weekend without food.
We do our food order for the next week at the end of each session, but we never get enough because our warehouse just doesn’t have the stock. Some weeks we get half of what we ask for.
Some of our church members and friends give us a little extra funding, which I’ve been able to use in the past to buy some fresh foods like fruit and vegetables and dairy stuff, so that’s been a real bonus. But now we’re having to buy some of the basic stuff with that money, which is sad.
It’s starting to put an extra strain on the volunteers and tug on their heartstrings, so much so that our volunteers are starting to bring in their own food items.
We need food. If people can get just one extra item a week in their shopping and put it in the donation points, that would be brilliant. Even the smallest donations are great, because all those small donations add up.
It’s so important that all of this is raised nationally. We can’t just pay lip service to this. This is real. It’s out there. It’s on the streets. It needs to be highlighted that it’s not going away. All those years ago we thought it might only be a temporary measure, but it’s part of our lives now.
People are only really supposed to have three food vouchers within any six month period, because it’s meant to just get them through the crisis periods. But people are having to come more and more. That puts pressure on the volunteers. As a volunteer, we would never want to send someone away who needed food.
It wasn’t meant to be like that, but that’s what’s having to happen now. Because people are in constant crisis. This is an emergency situation.
We’ve got no way of knowing how we’re going to survive this winter. We really don’t. I shouldn’t be saying that really but it’s the truth. We’re not the only ones in this situation. We are literally desperate. And we’re in an unsustainable position of basically shoring up the inadequate benefit system that is letting people down. We are running to stay still.
The food bank opened in November of 2013. We are celebrating our 10th anniversary. I was on the original steering group that started the food bank as a volunteer when I was a single mum on income support, and I’m its communications and campaigns coordinator now.
Unfortunately this is a growth industry. We get bigger and bigger every year. We’ve got five members of staff now and at the beginning it was just little old me. We had 15 volunteers and now we’ve got 110.
We have always had higher numbers than the national average. Every year, the level of need was increasing by about 20%, but the last few years have gone bananas.
In 2022, we had a 56% increase on 2021. So far this year, and we haven’t even got to the end of December yet, we’ve had a 67% increase on last year.
We are giving away so much food now. Donations just can’t keep up. We’re really scared about winter. This year we are literally having to ask people to pray for us. We’ve spent £108,000 on food.
People talk about the inflation rate going down, but prices aren’t coming down. No one’s going out to do their shopping and finding it’s cheaper. They are just going up at a slightly slower rate. Benefits have not been uprated in line with inflation over the years. There’s still the two child cap.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust have got together and found that if you literally had the subsistence amount of basics, you need £120 a week. But you only get £85 on universal credit. Food banks are a symptom of a safety net that just isn’t good at catching people.
When we started the food bank, we knew there was a need and we were there to meet that need. There will always be people that need us and we will always be there for people. But this is something else now. This is people with jobs coming to see us – people who never thought they would find themselves in this position.
I personally disagree with the confetti style pots of money that are given out by the government. It’s very hotchpotch. Everyone gets certain things, some people can’t get things, and you have to apply for some of it. It sounds like a lot of money but it’s really not.
I would love to see something like universal basic income come through. But until those days, just giving people enough to scrape by would be great.
We’re really freaked out because, a few weeks ago, we had already hit our peak. In the first week of October, we had more numbers than the highest week in the whole of last winter. And it wasn’t even cold. It has set alarm bells ringing.
No one wants to use a food bank. People only come when they really need us. We have lots of people who try not to come, so we have quite a few guests who we see once a month or once every six weeks when things are really tough. A lot of those people are now coming in more frequently because there’s just not enough coming in. The money is running out much faster and that’s really worrying.
In the last few months, we’ve had a lot more refugees and people without any status. We’re having so many people that are working or have mortgages. The other thing I think is probably saddest of all, we’re seeing people who we hadn’t seen for a while, sometimes for as long as three years.
And straight away from seeing them you know life hasn’t gone well. And they look slightly different and they’ve had a really tough time. It is particularly sad where we sorted out problems which we tried to sort.
Being poor in this country or living in poverty, it’s like snakes and ladders. We can do everything to get ourselves up, but there’s just so many snakes and so many little things that can go wrong and then suddenly you’re back at rock bottom again. But worse than rock bottom actually because it’s so much more difficult to get yourself out of that situation, because things are so much more expensive. There’s less support available.
We’re doing a massive fundraiser at the moment because we’re worried about our supplies, because our costs have really gone up. In the past, we got everything we needed from just asking people to donate food and that was our safety net for quite a long time. Now we’ve been supplementing that with a weekly shop. We spend at least £800 on it.
We are in a relatively affluent area. We are lucky we can tap into that. Other food banks are running out of supplies and have to work so much harder.
I’m really worried about the winter. I’m worried about our guests, and the numbers going up. I’m worried about our volunteers, because what we’re dealing with week after week is not what a lot of us signed up for. Now pretty much every week we have someone who’s suicidal. We have to make an urgent phone call to Crisis Line. I try to deal with those but I’m not always able to. I’m really concerned about burnout, and people breaking down.
We always say we are at breaking point. We are at rock bottom. But then you think: ‘No, that wasn’t rock bottom, because this is.’ It just gets worse. We can work hard. We can double on volunteers and double on funds. But at the end of the day, we need change at the top.
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