Four Regions, One Story
The headlines just keep coming, don’t they?
As food prices rise at the fastest pace for 40 years, and inflation hits 10%, supermarket Asda reports customers regularly asking cashiers to stop scanning items when the till total hits £30.
Having survived the worst of Covid, it is the poorest who are once again being hit hardest (see analysis of the latest ONS data here). As a nation we are beginning to see levels of poverty that the country has not experienced for many years, with The Trussell Trust reporting an accelerating crisis and a dramatic increase in the need for emergency food supplies over the past six months.
This reality is being born out in our projects.
Today we hear from four food projects around the country about how these national trends are impacting clients in their regions.
In the North West one foodbank reports an increase of around 25% in the number of people attending their MealShare project (this translates to a 100% increase in the fareshare order needed to keep the operation afloat). It is noteworthy that most of this increase comes from people currently in work needing extra assistance, due to either inflation or energy price rises. MealShare operates in a reasonably wealthy area, but people in sectors like retail are struggling to keep their heads above water, while those on benefits find themselves moving further behind. The spring and summer months have been warmer and dryer than normal, and gas costs have not yet hit in a meaningful way but further increases are on the way before the winter.
The picture is similar in the Midlands where a foodbank reports the same sort of increase from the end of March. Clients may attend once a fortnight and the recent rolling two-weekly count went from 250 clients to 340 and has stayed at that higher level since. Data on why those new clients are coming is yet to be collated, but the perception is that about 50% are those on Universal Credit who can't make ends meet and the other 50% split between refugees/asylum seekers and single parents (often working part-time) impacted by price rises. During COVID the foodbank received additional funding from government and businesses, but this has now stopped at a point where the need is greater than ever. Whilst, during COVID, the foodbank built up significant stock these are now depleted and, moving forward, the foodbank will have to ask some serious questions about funding, donations and what can be offered.
A foodbank in the East of England describes the current situation as a ticking time bomb. Open three mornings a week since October they are currently feeding over 1000 people a month. Normally, it is at Christmas time that they see peak demand, but this year demand has increased month on month. The £150 council tax rebate helped some, but many regular clients are either in housing situations that are not eligible, or others (though eligible even when in debt) are so worried that they discard the post as it's too scary to read! The foodbank manager makes comparisons with his own more secure position and the options that the well-resourced take for granted. For example, the ability to drive to a cheaper ‘budget’ supermarket, is not an option for those who must walk to the nearest shop where everything is twice the price. Cancelling a direct debit for fuel is an option for many paying what is owed at the end of each month, but those lacking the money up-front will sit in the dark and not even cook the basic (sometimes unappealing) tinned food given to them. The foodbank knows of pensioners cooking on a barbecue afraid to turn on the cooker, and ‘Just Eat’ and Uber drivers scraping a living, now unable to afford the fuel needed to get to work. Donations are down but at the moment, with money in the bank, there are resources to top-up supplies and buy food: but for how long?
On the South coast, one of the busiest food banks in the country, distributing 155,000 meals to people in a town with a mix of very affluent and very deprived areas, is no different. There has been a staggering 78% increase in demand during the first three months of 2022 compared to the year before. This foodbank runs nine satellites across the town, with emergency food available on every weekday. Their team of dedicated welfare benefits and debt advisers is available in most of their venues. While the advisers work to ensure clients are receiving every benefit due and claiming every appropriate council tax reduction and discretionary housing payment, they are increasingly finding that clients lack enough money to afford the essentials. Clients speak of skipping meals so they can feed their children and, like many foodbanks, extras are provided because many families can’t afford to buy washing powder, deodorant or toothpaste. People are having to make impossible decisions between paying essential bills, rent and food. The foodbank is hearing of rents locally increasing from £850 to £1150 per month. People are struggling with debt and there is a gradual change in those coming for support and advice, with more people in work needing emergency food and energy top-ups. In May 2022, the local council declared a Cost of Living Emergency and the foodbank has joined a Cost of Living Emergency Summit with other key local stakeholders; the aim being to identify and address the core cost-of-living challenges in the town.
From these snapshots we see some consistent themes around the country, particularly the concern that, come the autumn, energy needs will increase just as fuel costs are set to rise again. It is not new that foodbanks provide for those both the employed and unemployed but the scope of those being served is widening and increasing. The need for practical advice and for essentials beyond just food is also increasing, while the other side of the cost of living crisis is that direct donations to foodbanks and other funding may be decreasing.
Sometimes those serving on the frontline can feel despondent or overwhelmed, but stories of ‘just in time’ provision, of unexpected donations, and of new sources of funding are also in rich supply.
Just as during the pandemic public support was galvanised, an increasing wave of generosity (especially from within the church) is now needed to meet the challenge ahead.
What could you do over the coming weeks and months to improve awareness and support for emergency food projects in your community?
Written by Jubilee+ volunteer, Richard Wilson