The rise and rise of the food bank

They call it a "bank" for a reason.

A woman walks into the Kings Church centre, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of a sports jacket twice her size. On the run from domestic abuse, she’s only been in the city two weeks and she’s hungry.

Inside it’s warm, fluorescently lit and smells faintly of disinfectant. The other visitors sitting at old computers in jeans and trainers don’t notice her enter. The only clue about what the centre offers is an abandoned trolley in one corner and some volunteers sorting through tins behind a counter. She looks around, “Is this a homeless shelter or something?” she asks.

More people are visiting food banks every day. There are now over 200 operating across the UK, serving everywhere from the densely concentrated poverty of Tower Hamlets to the rural poverty of Okehampton and the isolated highlands around Inverness.

The biggest is in Coventry, where over 7,000 people have walked away with packs of tinned food, sugar and tea since it launched last year. In a time of economic decline, the number of people visiting food banks doubled to 128,967 last year.

With no sign of the economy recovering, experts predict that they will be serving over half a million people by the next election. Two more open every week.

“Inflation in food, rising living costs and falling wages all push people to count their pennies, and a huge volume of people are finding that they can’t make it to the end of the week,” says Chris Mould, executive chairman of the Trussell Trust which operates the only network of food banks in the UK, “After two or three years of hardship people run out of people to ask for help, and savings have all diminished. This country is facing some hard truths.”

Everyone has their own story about why they came to a food bank, but two big factors play a part in most of them.

Some 29 per cent of visitors say that they have been forced to look for help because of benefits changes. Even if you’re entitled to help under the government’s new system, a six-week delay is standard.

In that space, some of the most vulnerable are left with nothing. But benefits are not the only reason. Low pay is more commonly cited as a reason for seeking help than unemployment, with some 19% of foodbank visitors finding that their wages cannot meet basic costs. Visitors have been let down by the market as well as the state.

Portsmouth food bank operates on the same principle to those across the UK. Those in need are given vouchers by partner agencies – Sure Start centres, social services, schools etc – and that entitles you to free bundle of soup, beans, rice pudding, tinned tomatoes, tea, cereal and other basics.

The food is nutrionally balanced, but the supply isn’t endless. Each voucher entitles you to three days worth of food, and each guest is only allowed three vouchers. Foodbanks are supposed to provide help in a crisis, not a long-term supply.

Although the need for food banks might be dark, their existence offers hope. With no government funding, they are a fantastic example of community action. According to the Trussell Trust, some 1,225 tonnes of food were donated last year, distributed by some 4,360 volunteers in partnership with 1,423 schools and 2,025 churches.

The organisation is religious, but their help comes with no ties, and although the Portsmouth bank has won some rare funding from the Lottery to support their work, most of the food comes from local donations.

Dotted around Portsmouth’s supermarkets you’ll see donation points where you can give away one or two items from your weekly shop. Volunteers stand outside shopping centres with lists of particular things they’d love you to pick up.

“Local communities are really bothered about the impact of the recession,” says Mould, who eventually wants to see some 700 foodbanks across the country, “As soon as you highlight that their neighbours are suffering people want to do something. It’s very heartwarming. They will help if there’s something practical they can do.”

They call it a food “bank” for a reason. Volunteers are encouraged to leave a deposit today, because tomorrow they might need to make a withdrawal. People like Kelly who have relied on foodbanks to get them through a crisis often come back when they’re on their feet, walking in with overflowing bags of shopping and smiling because they want to give something back.

This builds ownership. When a community is asked to help it makes them think about the poverty on their doorstep. It forces them to engage with poverty and take responsibility for it in a way that blind state services might not. This is important.

As Mant said as the bank closed for the day, "Any of us could find ourselves in the same position, but for the Grace of God.”

 

Donations of food are stacked on shelves at a foodbank centre in Salisubury. Credit: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Helena Smith
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Can religion trump the climate change deniers? Meet the inter-faith environmentalists

The role of faith in fighting intolerance, protecting the planet, and trumping Trump.

"I need my brothers here with me - Canon Giles and Rabbi Natan," said Dr Husna Ahmad, motioning for the two men to join her at the pulpit. Taking their hands and raising them above her head, she continued:

“[I need them] to be my voice, to fight for my right to practice my religion, for my right to wear the hijab and to care for my sons and daughters and granddaughters - as they would care for their own”.

Why do I ask for this at an evening about climate change? she asked, her voice now shaking with emotion. “Because only when we think as one humanity can we save this planet.”

The meeting at St John’s church, Waterloo, saw Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders come together for the first-ever "Faith for the Climate" event. Their message echoed the wider Interfaith movement's statement on climate change: that caring for the earth is our shared responsibility. 

As so often with environmental subjects, the effort felt at risk of being shadowed by the more tangible needs of the soup-kitchen operating in the dusk outside. Yet at a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism building cross-community connections and tackling prejudice matter more than ever.

Not least since the fledgling consensus on climate change is also under threat. In the US, one of the world's great polluters, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is a climate change denier. 

During last night's televised debate Hillary Clinton took the businessman to task for saying that climate change was "a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese". Trump denied the accusation: "I did not, I did not, I do not say that," he responded. Yet his tweet history suggests otherwise - revealing how a toxic mix of xenophobia and climate scepticism play their part in his wider message.

Prepped with tea and pitta bread, attendees bore witness to a talk by Sir David King - the Foreign secretary's special representative on climate change. By 2035 the world needs to be at net zero emissions, King explained.

Unbearable heat waves, extreme flooding and biblical-levels of crop-destruction wait on the other side of this deadline.

Last week’s UN conference in New York has seen over 30 new nations, including the UK, officially commit to the Paris climate treaty.  Yet against such optimism must be set the looming prospect of a Trump Presidency in America. 

Not only has Trump said he would “cancel” America’s commitment to the Paris agreement. He has also promised to end the “war on coal”, scrap the Environment Protection Agency, and appoint an oil executive to be the Interior secretary. Without America’s support for global action on climate change, the 1.5 degrees target would be impossible to reach.

So how can religion help? On a direct level, many faith-based bodies are already utilising their vast networks to help tackle the challenge.

Since 2004, Operation Noah, a UK-based Christian charity, has called on the church to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir King also described the Pope's 2015 environmental encyclical as an important part of the "crescendo" that set the stage for the successful negotiations on the global climate deal. On the back of such international progress, groups such as Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and the Big Church Switch are strengthening their interventions. Just last week, Christian Aid announced a new $53m fund to improve energy efficiency in developing countries. 

But there is perhaps also another, less direct, way that religion is helping. Christian evangelicals in the US have been more likely to be climate sceptics. Yet in inter-religious contexts, the multiplicity of interpretations can also be an invitation to a deeper interrogation - of the very way we form assumptions about the world. 

Just look at how many takes there have been on the Noah story within Christianity alone. Mike Hulme at Kings College London points to an American Christian evangelical coalition which supports fossil fuels for their ability to provide cheap energy for the poor. Others have claimed that God’s promise to Noah not to drastically alter the earth again means that the impact of climate change will be softened. In contrast, others read floods as a punishment for human sin. According to the Bishop of Carlisle, the 2007 floods were “the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused.”

While it may be tempting to pack unpalatable viewpoints off in a "basket of deplorables", or wipe them out with an apocalyptic flood, the takeaway from events like last Wednesday's seems to be a message of expanded community and common ground.

For Canon Giles, simply watching members of different faiths united in prayer had transformative power. "In that moment, we were no longer a gathering of different faiths and dogmas," he said. "We were simply members of the muddled human species, pooling our hopes and prayers."

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.