Natalie Williams
Behind the stats of food poverty

This article first appeared on the Huffington Post website.

A week ago we passed two milestones at my local foodbank. We gave out our 400,000th meal, and we hit 300 tonnes of food given out since we opened in April 2012.

These numbers are hard to fathom. They are nameless and faceless, so easy to disregard. But behind them are hundreds of people who have come to us desperate, at their wits’ end, facing a crisis of one kind or another.

That some people – including people in high places – still think most people using foodbanks only do so because they know they can get free food is astounding to me. I’ve had that conversation with my local MP Amber Rudd a number of times. Over recent months, she expressed a willingness to admit that the new welfare system is flawed and, more importantly, to change it. When we last met just a couple of months ago, she told me about some substantial changes for good she hoped to make to Universal Credit when she had a chance to get it onto the legislative agenda.

So the news of her resignation has caused Jubilee+ and some other charities like ours to worry about what happens now. Many of us on the frontlines of supporting people facing poverty in our communities are disappointed that we won’t get to see if Ms Rudd would bring about the positive changes we believed she might. She offered more hope than her predecessors for delivering the vital changes to Universal Credit that Jubilee+ and others have been calling for. In the end, Ms Rudd didn’t make the substantial changes we implored her to make, and sadly these urgently needed reforms look no closer to happening under her successor.

Thérèse Coffey has consistently voted against measures for the Government to invest more money into welfare and benefits. At least five times she has voted against raising benefits in line with the cost of living. Fifteen times she has voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability. And 52 times she has voted for a reduction in spending on benefits.

To be fair, Ms Rudd’s voting record is almost identical. But she had started to see that the system could be kinder and more compassionate. We hope her successor will see this too, because if the current trajectory continues, foodbanks such as mine are going to struggle to cope with the huge increases in demand that could continue this winter. In Hastings, we’ve now seen a 118% increase in referrals since Universal Credit was introduced here in December 2016.

Again, that’s a big faceless number. Behind it are parents who are struggling because their child needs regular hospital visits but their benefits have been cut or frozen. Behind it are veterans who have served in our armed forces, keeping us safe, but who now feel there is no safety net here at home for them. Behind it are people who have lost jobs, loved ones and in the worst cases even the will to live. Behind it are those who have been reduced to skipping meals, selling their bodies, or turning to crime. Behind it are, increasingly, people who are working but no longer find that what they earn is enough to keep them out of poverty.

The most concerning thing is that the numbers continue to grow, and in all the political chaos that currently surrounds us, no one’s eyes are on this particular ball. Of all the possible scenarios ahead of us at the moment, a ‘no deal’ Brexit is unquestionably the one that poses the highest risk to people in poverty, or on the edge of it. That’s why most of the major Christian charities in the country are urging the Government to develop a plan for supporting the poorest – something that seems strangely lacking from our political discourse at the moment.

The GMB Union estimates our shopping bills will rise by £800 a year if we leave the EU without a deal. For some readers, that won’t sound like a lot of money. But for the people referred to foodbanks, there’s no way they will be able to afford any increase at all for the essentials. The rising cost of living, set against stagnating wages and frozen benefits, is already one of the factors pushing people into, or deeper into, poverty. While some of us may be able to weather a short- or medium-term Brexit storm by going without takeaways and holidays, most of the people we’re supporting don’t have any luxuries they can cut.

Likewise, people who are already living in poverty or who know they could fall into it with the slightest nudge are the least able to prepare for future hardship. Stockpiling food, medicine and other essentials now simply isn’t an option if you can barely afford what you need for the coming week. If those who are better off stockpile for themselves, it will exacerbate the problem for those who can’t afford to – and it may even cause a crisis that otherwise could have been avoided. If you’ve started stockpiling, please bear in mind that foodbanks across the country need your help. For every tin you buy for yourself, please consider buying one for your neighbour in need or your local foodbank. (That’s a good idea all the time, not just in a national crisis.)

While everything looks bleak and chaotic at the moment, at Jubilee+ we do still have hope. We know that churches across the country will keep doing all they can to support those in need. Our doors will stay open. As long as it’s within our power, we won’t let anyone go hungry. We hope Thérèse Coffey feels the same.

Learn more about how your church can prepare to meet the increasing need in your community at our annual conference. This year it will eb held in Stoke Gifford, Bristol on Saturday, 16 November. Find out more and book in.

Image credit: Trussell Trust website