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4 August 2017

And then the cupboard was bare – how long can food banks keep pace with hunger?

A year after my first visit to a food bank, demand had doubled. 

By David Barker

Last year, my local foodbank invited me to visit so I could write an article for the New Statesman describing what one afternoon for them was like. My time there was intense and deeply moving. I watched volunteers give out dozens of food parcels, but also provide calm advice, or even just listen, to people visibly in crisis. But much has changed in the past year.

B30 Foodbank, named after the Bournville postcode in Birmingham, serves the southern half of the city, which has a total population of over one million. A year ago, I was struck by how well the volunteers coped with such enormous pressure, but I was glad to see shelves full of food, ready to be given out. Many of those same volunteers are there now, along with some new additions. Given that this foodbank, like so many in the Trussell Trust, operates out of a local church, many of the volunteers are Christian. The majority of those I saw tended to be older and whiter than average in this diverse and young city. Neither of these are growing demographics, and yet they are on the frontline of a growing problem.

I first met B30 Foodbank last year after organising a fundraiser for them. I ran another event this July, raising £1,000, which paid for 628kgs of food. They told me this worked out as about 2,500 meals. It felt huge. It’s roughly how much one person eats in two years, so I assumed it would replenish them for at least a couple of weeks.

Three days later, the fooodbank’s manager, Roger Collins, emailed me to say that on one Tuesday afternoon, between 2:30 and 4:30 pm, they received vouchers for 82 people (47 adults 35 children). This worked out as them giving out 633kgs of food: slightly more than I had managed to buy with £1,000.

I went to see Collins on the Friday. After hearing how hectic it had been on Tuesday, I was relieved to see relatively few people sitting at three small, round tables in the church’s hall. The lack of people inside made the room feel spacious, and those in it more noticeable: a volunteer on one side of each round table and a person in need on the other. There was also a fourth table set against the wall: long and covered with the drinks and foods the team couldn’t put in food parcels, along with snacks like biscuits. Collins said anyone in there is told to help themselves.

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The fourth table was also how the volunteers tell how long a person has gone without food. If someone arrives starving, then they won’t stop eating snacks, even during discussion of issues like dietary and fuel requirements. “There’s never anything left on the table by the end,” said Collins.

He took me into the storeroom to show me a food parcel they had just put together for one person. I stared at the tins of vegetables, as I tried to work out how I could combine them with the bag of pasta to make two meals, and then considered what to put with the rice to create another. I quickly felt that, if I was creative, I could make it stretch out for four days. A typical food parcel for one person provides enough food for three days, but, as many only get referred after the problem has become acute, these parcels have to replenish existing hunger, as well as tide them over for half a week.

The shelves at the back of the storeroom were not barren, but they were not full either. Food was separated into types: tinned, dried, cartons, and within that into more specific groups. There were tinned beans, soups, meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables; dried pasta, cereals, and rice; and cartons of long-life milk and juices, along with other essentials like tea, sugar, coffee, and sauces. On one door a sign read, “Keep calm and feed the hungry”.

“Foodbanks shouldn’t exist”, Collins said as I surveyed the room. “So why do they?” I asked. “The welfare state is being destroyed”, he replied without hesitation. We then spoke about that day’s announcement that children’s centres in Birmingham are threatened with closure, due to the city council facing year on year austerity cuts by central government. All services are dwindling, but this one will certainly impact on what B30 Foodbank does. Children’s centres are one of the most common places people get referred to a foodbank.

There are reports that more than a million children could go hungry this summer, partly due to those on free school meals not receiving the same report over the summer holiday. In response to shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s written question, the government has stated it has “made no assessment of the number of children who are at risk of experiencing hunger during school summer holidays in 2017”.

On the other side of the room to the food, I spotted another cupboard, which I didn’t see there last year. It housed non-food personal hygiene items, like toilet paper and nappies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shower gels and deodorants.

“It’s because of I, Daniel Blake,” Collins said. That film not only impacted the way in which people saw those in crisis, but also broadened ideas about what their needs were. Now they often receive, amongst other items, boxes and boxes of tampons, and sanitary and incontinence pads.

Collins led me through to the hallway, where a noticeboard held up photos of bulk donations, including mine, but also monthly and annual reports on how much they are giving, receiving, and where its all coming from and going to. B30 Foodbank’s figures mirror those of the national Trussell Trust: almost 40 per cent of those receiving food are children. It was about the same last year.

But I was faced with one stark difference between now and then. The amount of food given out has risen exponentially. In some months, it is double the previous year’s figure. Contributions have also risen, but, on balance, there is no doubt demand has outpaced donation. Between August 2016 and July this year, the foodbank gave out 60,772kgs of food, but only received 58,660kgs.

Based on what I managed to purchase, that is a gap Collins and his team will need over £3,000 of donations to fill. However, should this pattern continue, a new crisis will emerge, one in which the foodbank’s reserves will run out and they may not be able to feed everyone who comes in. Some difficult choices would follow.

I asked Collins why it is that the single most common reason for anyone coming to a foodbank is that their income is too low. “It’s the gig economy,” he said. A few weeks prior, a young man came in for support, with his Deliveroo bag still on his back. He had a job, but the low pay and high expenses meant he had no money left over to buy food.

“A lot of demand comes from debt, but also changes and delays to benefits,” Collins told me. This includes payments for those in work, but the changeover to universal credit has been problematic for those on benefits, as is homelessness. However, as the Deliveroo worker demonstrates, a lot of those in crisis are also in work.

If this government doesn’t address stagnant wages amidst an increased cost of living, then working poverty will only continue to rise, and sooner or later, foobanks like B30 could go bust.

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