Households unable to afford food up by 81 per cent in just two weeks

The demand for foodbanks has rocketed amid the UK’s coronavirus restrictions.

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In Wandsworth, southwest London, 135 per cent more emergency food parcels were sent out in the last two weeks of March than the same period last year. Most worrying was the 145 per cent rise in parcels for children.

Wandsworth is not alone. Foodbank use has seen a record spike across the UK. Data released today by the Trussell Trust and Independent Food Aid Network charities shows an 81 per cent increase in the last two weeks of March in foodbank use – and an 122 per cent increase in parcels going to children in that time – compared with the same period last year.

Loss of income is the main driver of this spike, finds Wandsworth foodbank co-founder and trustee Sarah Chapman, who has been crunching the numbers and listening to foodbank users’ stories. “It’s where income is not covering the cost of essentials,” she tells me. “Whatever money people are getting from anywhere, it’s now not enough.”

This time last year, loss of income was behind about a third of this foodbank’s referrals – and in previous years, just a quarter. Since the coronavirus lockdown, it is “now way above half of people referred”, reveals Chapman.

There are different stories beind each parcel. A nurse and single mother who cannot afford her rent but has to work part time in order to care for her children. A father who works in a warehouse on a zero-hour contract who has suddenly lost all his hours. A cleaner whose clients no longer want her coming around. Budgeting has also become impossible for many households, forced to buy essentials from more expensive corner shops, or the upmarket produce left on supermarket shelves.

“One mother with little ones who has never used a foodbank before and always does a big shop at the beginning of the month went shopping in March, and all the supermarkets had run out of basics,” Chapman tells me.

She had to buy a bag of pasta for £1.70, when she’d usually go for the 50p packet. Another mother, who cannot travel far because of her three-year-old with special needs, has to buy nappies at a local shop – costing £10 instead of £6. Eggs have also been a drain, with only the more expensive organic eggs left on shelves, which are rapidly emptied of cheaper options.

“Suddenly the costs are just far too high, but you have to either buy that or not buy anything,” says Chapman. “When you’re on a low income, it’s a massive change. For too many people, these are deal breakers.”

Online prices of everyday essential items identified by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) increased by 4.4 per cent from 16-22 March to 6-12 April.

Pet food, for example, saw the highest price increase among high-demand consumer products at 8.4 per cent (in the period between 30 March-5 April and 6-12 April). Rice was the second highest, at 5.8 per cent, with tomato puree third at 3.5 per cent, and nappies fourth at 3.4 per cent. Tinned beans, rice and pasta sauce have seen the largest price increases from 13-19 April to 20-26 April, by 1.1 per cent, 0.9 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively, according to the ONS.

Just under one in four adults (23.6 per cent) finds Covid-19 affecting their household finances, with 68.2 per cent of them concerned about a reduced income, according to an ONS survey covering 9-20 April.

Wandsworth foodbank opened in 2013, and has five centres in churches across the borough. It switched to a delivery system on 31 March, about a week after the UK locked down amid the coronavirus outbreak. Packing is done by volunteers who are able maintain two metres’ distance in the main church now that services are no longer held there physically.

Foodbank referrals are made electronically, and volunteers call up foodbank users to go through the options of their food parcels (pasta or rice, for example). They also provide advisers who can help people stuck at home to address the underlying issues leading to foodbank use – like benefits or employment problems. Deliveries are usually made the following day.

“We’ve just seen people hit hard by coronavirus. We keep thinking of a phrase: ‘We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,’” says Chapman. “We see the impact of coronavirus is just being felt more strongly by people on the lowest incomes, and are already on the precipice of low income, with absolutely no stretch in the system.”

Chapman's views are mirrored nationally. “Like a tidal wave gathering pace, an economic crisis is sweeping towards us – but we don’t all have lifeboats. It’s not right that this has meant some of us don't have enough money for essentials and are being pushed to food banks,” says Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie. “Now is the time to build on the foundations our government has laid… We have the power to come together as a country and make sure support is there to stop any of us being swept into poverty during this emergency.”

Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network Sabine Goodwin says this “escalating food insecurity crisis is avoidable”: “The solution is not in trying to distribute more food parcels, but in providing sufficient income to the huge numbers of people impacted by this crisis and the poverty that preceded it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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