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.”