In 2000 the Trussell Trust started its first “foodbank” in Salisbury. It was founded on a simple model: volunteers receive food by donations and provide them to people in crisis.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Trust now has 148 ‘franchises’ across the UK. In 2010-11 61,468 adults and children received the emergency food from foodbanks franchised by the trust. In 2011-12 that number doubled to 128,697 people.
Liverpool Central food bank was set up on 28th March 2011. It is located in Frontline Church, in the heart of heavily student-populated Wavertree. Volunteers run collections at local supermarkets, giving shoppers a list of basic non-perishable items to buy. Since last year the bank has stocked 30 tons of food. Clients are given vouchers by a number outside agencies, which can then be redeemed for food. They’ve just fed their 4000th person.
“It’s certainly getting harder”
I was met by Paul Edwards, the foodbank’s manager. I asked if the community had always needed a service like this, or whether it was a result of the economic downturn.
“It’s certainly getting harder” he says. “A lot of people who were just above, or on, the poverty line have in the last year fallen very quickly. Rising prices, gas and electric; and all the rest of it. Wages are not going up. People get ill and depressed because of it, and it just spirals out of control.” Almost 13 million people in the UK live below the poverty line: nearly 1 in 5.
Many will be surprised, given the endless headlines about an allegedly profligate welfare system that people need to turn to charities for help. “When we’re out collecting food at the supermarkets we get a range of comments, from ‘surely not our affluent day and age’ to the other end of the spectrum … quite often it’s the poorer people that give very generously because they know what it’s like.”
The most common reason people come to the foodbank, says Paul, is problems and delays with benefit payments. “A lot of it is to do with benefit problems. Particularly the disability benefits, people are getting them cut completely when they’ve relied on them for years and years, finding all of sudden it’s taken away. And maybe sometimes it’s for good reasons, but sometimes people just pass the test instead of failing. They’ve got these outside agencies testing people and a lot of people are angry and hurt by it.
“We had a young man who’d just come out of prison. They give him £40 in his pocket, and of course that goes within a day or two of getting out. Then he had to wait weeks for his benefits to come through. Why isn’t that sorted while they’re still in prison? It’s crazy, and then they’re tempted to steal again obviously.”
Nationally the Trussell trust says 29% of people use their service because of delays in receiving their benefit payments.
Volunteer Andrew, who left his job after his workplace was held up by armed robbers, first came to the foodbank as a client as a result of such delays. “Seems easy what they need to do, but they seem to make a mountain out of a molehill. They’ll always delay you.”
Andrew now helps out at the foodbank: when I talked to him he was making toast for clients. “There’s only a few places like this; I just want to help really.”
He’s not the only one. Another client, Colin Pratt, says he likes to help in whatever way he can. Colin is an electrician by trade. Around five years ago he started struggling to get work and eventually found himself with no roof over his head.
Having lived in a Salvation Army hostel for four months he got a small one bedroom flat from a housing association. It hasn’t got an oven or a fridge, but the Salvation Army did give him some vouchers for basic furniture. He gets £71 a week in benefits.
While Colin is telling me this we are briefly interrupted by a volunteer who offers Colin some of of the fresh fruit and tins they have in today. “Look at the kindness of the people here; they’re genuine.” I ask if that’s different to his experience with the Job Center: “The difference is you get treated like a human being. You know, you get looked after, you get a cup of tea and a piece of toast. You get the kindness of people who you’ve never ever met before. If you go to the Job Center you’ll feel as if you’re under interrogation. As if you’re not entitled to what you’re going in for.
“You wouldn’t believe how hard things are getting with everybody at the moment,” he says “and they’re going to get worse.”
“We always need more food”
Paul shows me the storeroom, which is being stocked with new donations from school harvest festivals. “We always need more food” he says. Basic non-perishables, such as tinned soup, make up much of the store, but less immediately obvious items such as nappies, dehydrated milk and even pet food are always in demand. “Some people will feed their pets before they feed themselves.”
At the end of our interview, I asked Paul about the Christian ethos behind the project: “It’s a Christian charity, this is a Christian church … we think God is the answer.” However not all the volunteers are church goers, “we’re not here to push God down people’s throats … our primary reason for doing this is because we care about people and being a help.”
Central Foodbank collects food outside local supermarkets, including Tesco and Asda, and is always in need of donations. A PDF shopping list of items always in demand can be found here. The foodbank is volunteer run. Volunteers collect food, store food, meet clients and fundraise for the charity. To find out more about volunteering visit the foodbank website.
- According to DEFRA, between June 2007 and June 2011 food prices in the UK increased by 26 per cent – or over 12 per cent when inflation is taken into account.
- Private contractor Atos healthcare is contracted by the government to run ‘Work Capability Assessments” of people on disability benefits, and has conducted around 738,000 tests. This is a keystone of the government’s ‘welfare to work’ programme. It was recently been revealed that 40% of those found fit to work appeal the decision, and 38% of those appeals are successful. Atos was originally contracted by the last Labour government.