There are many surprisingly cheery aspects to volunteering at a food bank, but giving out two carrots and an onion to a family of seven, as I had to do last week, is not among them. Nor is explaining to later visitors that there’s no fresh food left at all. As we packed up, another more seasoned helper noted that even the microwave meals had all disappeared – “and you know people are getting desperate when they’re taking them”.
Not, you understand, that there’s anything wrong with tubs of dal and rice, but a lot of the people we serve can’t eat them for dietary reasons, a few live on the streets and don’t have the facilities to reheat them, and some simply prefer to cook themselves (one microwave curry doesn’t go very far). We usually end up freezing the excess for the following week, but that day the table was bare.
[see also: The lost children of lockdown]
I only have experience at one of 2,000 such services operating in the UK, but it seems sadly unlikely to be atypical. The country’s largest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust, anticipates this being its busiest winter yet: demand in the second quarter of 2020 was 81 per cent higher than the same period last year.
The reasons people access food banks – what Trussell describes as a “fundamental lack of income to sustain a minimum standard of living” – is nothing new, of course, and their use has been rising steadily for the past five years due to factors including benefit cuts and wage stagnation. But the economic conditions created by the pandemic have exacerbated an already growing problem. According to the Food Foundation, by May 4.9 million adults in the UK were food insecure, compared with two million before lockdown, and those households included 1.7 million children.
While anti-poverty campaigners have welcomed measures such as the Covid winter grant scheme in England, and the Scottish child payment, they say more needs to be done, including the temporary suspension of benefit deductions and the extension of the uplift to Universal Credit, to ensure the social security safety net is strong enough to support those forced to rely on it.
With such changes, it’s possible to imagine a world in which food banks are no longer an accepted and institutionalised part of British life. Yet though this is by no means an impossible dream – lobby your MP, support the Trussell Trust’s Hunger Free Future campaign, vote for change in the next election – such actions won’t help those struggling to get by, let alone enjoy this Christmas.
If you’d like to do something right now, find out what your chosen food bank really needs; most have websites or social media, and many welcome financial donations through apps such as Bankuet. They might well have enough baked beans to last them until the next election, but could be running short of soap or sanitary products, for example. Some can take fresh food, others have nowhere to store it.
At this time of year, don’t forget the things that make life a little brighter. Some organisations will also be collecting toys for children, but biscuits, sweets and other treats are always welcome alongside necessities. As George Orwell put it in 1937, “When you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.” And if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that chocolate is very tasty indeed.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump