The busiest ever month for UK foodbanks exposes a fatal flaw in our pandemic response

The number of households that cannot afford to eat has risen by 89 per cent.

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Foodbanks in the UK had their busiest month in April 2020, with demand up 89 per cent on the same month last year.

This included an 107 per cent rise in emergency food parcels for children, and a 95 per cent rise for families with children, according to the Trussell Trust charity, which has a network of more than 1,200 foodbanks.

Even more drastically, there was an 175 per cent increase in demand recorded in the same period by the Independent Food Aid Network, which advocates on behalf of 346 food banks independent of the Trussell Trust.

Different referral systems and changes to the sizes of food parcels, plus geographic area, may account of the discrepancy between these figures. But what is for certain is a record number of people unable to afford food in the UK.

Sudden loss of income is a main driver of this spike in food poverty, as I have reported previously during this pandemic.

For food banks in the Trussell Trust network, 48 per cent of the increase in demand was for people reporting a fall in income, either from their work or benefits.

Unemployment, loss of hours and Universal Credit claims (which take five weeks for the first payment) are up due to lockdown.

Prices of certain in-demand consumer products have risen fast. Shopping patterns have also shifted with childcare, travel restrictions, health concerns and, initially, empty shelves forcing some people to use their local cornershop instead of the cheaper big supermarkets.

Add to that the cost of sick leave and self-isolation resulting from the virus itself, and you have a perfect storm for households already living close to the breadline. As a foodbank manager put it to me a few weeks ago: “When you’re on a low income, it’s a massive change. For too many people, these are deal breakers.”

With the Job Retention Scheme, Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and other emergency financial support set to wind down over the coming months, redundancy and further loss of earnings could lead more people to turn to foodbanks.

A group of anti-poverty charities, including the Child Poverty Action Group, Children’s Society, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, StepChange and Turn2us, are calling for local authorities in England to provide emergency cash grants directly to those who need money for essentials.

Local welfare assistance – in the form of cash grants, cheap loans, food and fuel vouchers, and household items – is already a mechanism available to councils.

But funding cuts in England have meant this lesser-known branch of social security has fallen behind its devolved counterparts (the Scottish Welfare Fund, the Discretionary Assistance Fund in Wales, and Discretionary Support in Northern Ireland).

More than half of English councils (63 per cent) were forced to reduce spending on these schemes between 2015 and 2019, according to Children’s Society figures, and some have stopped offering it altogether.

“The government must put urgent support in place to ensure people already struggling to keep their heads above water can stay afloat,” says Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie. “It’s in our power to protect one another, we’ve seen it during this health crisis, and we need it to continue during this economic one.”

Yet cuts to council budgets – and the government’s broken promise to reimburse them – suggests lockdown poverty will continue being outsourced to foodbanks.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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