Food banks feed those with delayed benefits

Last year saw a 170 per cent rise in the number of people receiving meals from food banks. It is the biggest increase on record.

Despite the improving job market in 2013, it seems many are still going hungry, but why? 

With the recent rise in the UK’s economy, you would expect that people’s financial situation would be improving, and that those desperately struggling to make ends meet would get by with help from the benefit system. But the spike in food bank suggests otherwise…

Of all the factors that contribute to food bank use, delays in benefits are the main reason people are starving. Out of those visiting food banks, 30 per cent are there because of delays in their benefits.

Jihwey Park, head volunteer at Islington food bank, says, “Around half of those that come here are here because of benefit delays.”

A failing benefit system

Strict requirements for benefit eligibility means that many vulnerable people are unable to claim any money. Even those who are earning an income are either unable to claim any money or are forced to wait up to six weeks before their benefit claims are processed. Benefit eligibility has become even stricter since cuts were made to the system in April last year.

Because of loopholes in government benefits, many are simply struggling to survive, with no option but to turn to food banks.

Such loopholes include an individual or family needing to be a resident for at least six months in order to receive any emergency financial aid from local councils.

Anne Naysmith, the warehouse manager of Islington food bank, recounts one desperate families’ visit to the food bank, “One family were renting a home, but could not afford to insure any of their items. When they came home one day the house had burnt to the ground.

“Because they had lived there only a few months the council said that it wasn’t their problem and instead gave them a food bank voucher.

“They came to [Islington food bank] with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” concludes Anne solemnly.

A temporary service

“By government legislation, an individual or family can only ever receive three emergency food vouchers; we are restricted to provide only three boxes per family. Food boxes are a temporary measure,” says Anne.

One visitor to the Islington food bank, who cannot be named for privacy reasons, says: “This is my second time to the food bank because of changes to my benefits. I have had to go over a month on one occasion without food.”

Rising living costs

It is not only the failing benefit system which has contributed to the rise in food bank use over the past 12 months. Stagnant wages combined with a rise in living costs is also contributing to an increase in the number of people turning to food banks in order to survive.

Eighteen per cent of those using food banks are doing so because their salaries do not match the cost of living and inflation.

According to Anne, the number of people using the food bank has “doubled in the past year, due mainly to delays in benefits, the bedroom tax and a rise in bills”.

Rising fee’s causing starvation

Anne recalls another visitor to the food bank, a 21-year-old woman who “had previously been in care, but was released of their care and accommodation at the age of 18.

“Because she was a full time college student she wasn’t allowed to have a council house, she wasn’t qualified, neither had time to work very much.

“When she came to us she was severely underweight and malnourished.”

The young woman rang the council, who told her if she wanted any support her best chance was to get pregnant, says Anne sadly.  The young woman was given a food voucher by her GP and told volunteers at the Islington Food Bank that the food box given to her “literally saved” her life. 

People choosing to ‘heat’ rather than ‘eat’

Another reason for the spike in food bank use has been due to the recent harsher winters. Food bank use in central London and other larger cities has significantly risen this winter in particular.

“Many people are choosing to put their income and any savings towards paying off their utility bills and rent rather than buying food,” says Anne.

People are choosing to “heat rather than eat”, adds Anne.

A welcoming atmosphere

Visitors to the food banks are welcomed in by the volunteers who take each family or person individually to a separate room to give them their appropriate food box.

“Each visitor is taken individually to collect their food so no one feels embarrassed,” says Jihwey, friendly volunteer of two years. The circumstances to which someone may receive a food voucher is “unknown by the volunteers”, says Jihwey Park. “We are not allowed to ask visitors where the voucher came from or why they have received it,” she adds.

Food Box contents

Each Food bank provides the recipient with three weeks’ worth of tinned, nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food. A typical food box contains:

  • Baked beans
  • pasta
  • tinned vegetables
  • pulses
  • long life milk
  • custard or rice pudding
  • tinned fruit
  • fruit juice
  • cereal
  • stock/ spices or seasonings

For families with young children the box also contains:

  • nappies
  • baby food jars
  • extra milk

Jihwey says that everyone receives the same box of food, but dietary needs are taken into account. The food is donated to each food bank mainly by personal donations. Food is also collected by London’s inner-city food banks (such as Camden, Islington, Lambeth and Holloway) on ‘drive throughs’ which are regularly held outside Waitrose.

Parents struggling the most

Of the 346,992 people fed nationwide by food banks, between 2012 and 2013, 126,889 were children. Officially, additional benefits like free school meals are not available to children unless parents can prove that they are in receipt of benefits.

Kelly Knowleson, Family support worker at a primary school in Bristol, the largest City in the south after London, says, “I work with parents who are having financial problems. After paying bills, families find that there just isn’t enough money for food for the week. If the circumstance is serious I issue families with a ticket for the food bank. “

Many parents, because of a change in living circumstances or wages, have been left with no benefits due to the slow response of the government to change over their benefit entitlement.

Kelly says, “I am only allowed to give food bank vouchers three times a year due to the limited availability of foods at some of the banks, but I’m sure as people start to struggle more this will increase.”

 Food banks struggling to meet increased demand

Food bank use looks certainly set to continue rising. Islington’s food bank currently has over 6,450kg of non-perishable food in its warehouse, but this will only last “four months at the most”, says Anne.

Food banks in London and in other main cities across the Uk are providing a support line for those financially struggling. They allow students without families to continue their full time education and families to use their income to get themselves out of debt and remain in their homes. But it’s a double edged sword, whilst food banks continue to exist they show how poor our benefit system and wages are in providing enough to live a comfortable lifestyle.

“We hope to run ourselves out of existence,” says Anne, “that way we know we have truly succeeded”.  But until we see a more effective benefit system put in place, a rise in wages or a decline in the cost of living this trend in food bank use is predicted to continue.

Click here to see our map of nearby food banks

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