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7 September 2016

There’s a hole in the welfare state – and it’s too big for food banks to fill

David Barker speaks to volunteers at B30 Foodbank - and finds a service at breaking point.

By David Barker

This September marks the three-year anniversary of a foodbank opening near my home in Birmingham. In the past 12 months alone, it has provided 5,704 three-day emergency food parcels. Almost half of these were for children.

There has been an annual increase of around 1,000 for the past two years. While these numbers are troubling enough in themselves, this August saw twice as many people receive food as in the same month in 2015. The manager of B30 Foodbank, Roger Collins, can’t explain why demand has risen so sharply.

The foodbank operates out of Cotteridge Church every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, with the help of over 20 volunteers. Collins, in the midst of a busy session, manages to find a few minutes to speak with me. We sit on a long bench in a narrow hallway, sandwiched between tables of volunteers assessing people’s dietary needs and a short queue waiting anxiously for the same uncomfortable conversation.

Foodbanks are designed to provide food for people in an emergency. They also keep records of the specific crisis that leads someone to their doors.

Almost half of all people to have used B30 Foodbank in the past 12 months did so because of changes or delays to their benefits. A quarter were working, but earning so little they couldn’t afford food. The rest came from a mixture of; debt, sickness, homelessness, domestic violence, and having children entitled to free school meals who receive nothing during school holidays.

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40 per cent of children in the locality live in poverty. Around 30 per cent of children in Birmingham claim free school meals: more than double the national average. As a result, foodbanks like this one are often needed to families fed during school holidays.

The B30 postcode is itself a microcosm of the city. In its centre is the Bournville Cadbury factory, which is surrounded by middle and working class people from a diverse mix of backgrounds. But B30 Foodbank doesn’t just cover this postcode, or even the constituency it’s in. People come from all over the south half of Birmingham, a city with a population of over a million, and further afield. Within the city, some live over five miles away from the foodbank, and very few can easily afford the cost of public transport.

In Collins’ experience, poverty seems to cut through all religious and ethnic groups in the area equally, with men and women coming in equal numbers. What most have in common is meter payments for bills: the most expensive way to pay, but, lacking any savings, the only option available.

We begin to talk about Brexit when a visibly agitated woman starts to talk about having no electricity so loudly I can’t hear Collins’. He leads me past the tables of volunteers: all pensioners, I assume, who are writing notes about what foods the person requires, and we emerge in a large backroom where other volunteers are preparing the food parcels.

To one side are a row of cupboards: open, with each shelf housing dozens of each essential item: long-life milks, fruit juices, teas, coffees, pastas, rice, and tinned fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat.

Donations come in waves. Everything has to last during the months when they hand out more than they collect.

Scanning through the notes handed over from a volunteer in the hallway, a woman reads out the foodstuffs and another walks back and forth to retrieve them from the shelves.

It’s a lot calmer and quieter in here, but everyone is still incredibly busy. They only have a couple of hours to allocate the food before the foodbank closes for the evening.

Many of those coming to B30 Foodbank are from Northfield, an area that’s still yet to recover from the closure of the Longbridge Rover factory. Collins talks about how some, having lost so much and, felt like voting for Brexit was their only chance to protest.

Tthere’s a huge anger towards welfare state reforms, although it isn’t always discussed in party political terms. “I don’t understand how the government expect people to live on nothing”, Collins says, pointing towards the change to universal credit. Some have to survive without any income for however long the switch takes: people who have no safety net to tide them over. Any benefit sanctions leave them with less than nothing.

Recently, a man came in, having had nothing for three weeks, due to benefit changes and delays. They prepared a three-day food parcel for him, like they do with everyone else who receives their aid. What made this harder was that the man had another two weeks to wait before he could buy food for himself.

There’s only so long you can stretch our three days worth of food when you’re already hungry, and only so much a foodbank can do.

The B30 Foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust network, which accounts for just under half of all foodbanks in the country. There were two in 2004. There are now 424, staffed by 40,000 volunteers.

Collins sees demand increasing all the time, which means foodbanks aren’t going away any time soon. In the 2015/2016 financial year, the Trussell Trust gave out 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis. This is nearly ten times as many than four years ago.

If their calculation that, on average, people go twice a year is correct, then this is approximately over half a million people.

“There’s a huge hole in the welfare state and people are falling through-”

Shouting coming from the hallway cuts Collins off. He hurries back and we see the woman, who had earlier been talking about having no electricity, exiting the church, with large bags filled with food in her hands. “How am I meant to cook all this?”

I want to ask her if she’s overcome by how much food they gave, or if she’s upset, realising she can’t heat it without electricity, but she’s out of sight by the time I leave.

I get home to find Collins has sent me some data for this article and emailed to say that, after I left, a man came in, having been released from prison in July. He’s on universal credit, but the first payment isn’t due until mid September.

Like with everyone else in crisis, and no matter how long they’ve gone without food, B30 Foodbank can only prepare one three-day food parcel for them. For all the good work charities like these do, it simply isn’t enough to offset the failures of this government.

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