Picture a person using a food bank. Do you know what they look like? Can you imagine their appearance, their background, the inflections in their voice, the way their accent sounds to your ear? What does their house look like? And their CV? Are they working? (Answer, most likely.) Do they own a house? (Quite possibly.) Could they look just like you? (Without a doubt.)
The number of people in the UK using food banks is rising rapidly. In the current economic climate especially, the line of poverty – now at more than 13 million in the UK – has never been closer nor more unrecognisable. The need to use food banks is indiscriminate, yet almost invisible in day-to-day life. It’s friends or colleagues, facing redundancy, choosing between heating a home for a night and eating a meal. The parents in low-paid, insecure jobs, skipping tea each night so they can feed their children. Single mums struggling to pay bills, trying to shield their children from the bleakness they’re feeling.
“What people don’t often realise,” Emma, from The Trussell Trust, says, “is that it could quite easily be them – in a week, or a month, or a year, even, but it could be.” The charity runs a network of more than 400 food banks across the UK, providing three-day emergency food packages – largely donated by businesses, the public, schools and churches – to people experiencing crisis in the UK. People who attend the food bank are usually referred by a professional body, such as a health visitor, doctor, the police or even Citizen's Advice. "There are so many different reasons that people find themselves in a position where they need to use a food bank. It’s usually when something unexpected and unavoidable hits someone – from insecure work, zero-hours contracts, redundancy, to something as simple as a boiler breaking – and they don’t have enough of a financial buffer to weather that. Food is often the first thing to go when people cut back.”
One, extra, singular, overwhelming cost and entire families can find themselves in desperate, unknown financial territory. The largest group of people using food banks – 27.45 per cent is people experiencing delays on their benefits, and the second largest, at almost 25 per cent, is people on low incomes. Contrary to popular belief, homeless people make up only 5.67 per cent of all food-bank users. The majority of people queuing each day are simply unable to pay for their basic needs: rent or mortgage, and bills and food. And, in December, the Christmas period, they are even more vital. Summer months allow for turning off the heating; winter sees a spike in domestic bills. A bill goes up, a meal goes out the window. As a result, the Trust saw a 45 per cent increase in the number of three-day emergency food supplies they provided in the month of December compared with the monthly average for 2015/16.
Already this year, controversial government benefit caps, which targeted the country’s vulnerable working families, have left a huge financial gap for many in the South East of England, where a 59 per cent rise in emergency food parcels given out by the Trust has already been reported. In Norfolk, a bus company has teamed up with a food bank to shield hundreds of people from perilously long walks home in the cold. The queues at the banks are already growing stronger, the charity says. Last year, those queues resulted in 133,734 three-day emergency supplies being handed out. Almost 57,000 of those went to children.
We’ve never felt the the weakening of limbs and paling of skin, the gnawing acidity of an empty stomach, the acute thwack of panic on seeing a week stretched out ahead, empty cupboards and a hungry child in front of us
“One mum, last year, burst into tears on Christmas Eve, when volunteers gave her a teddy bear to give her young son alongside emergency food,” Adrian Curtis, The Trussell Trust food bank network director, says. “She thought she wouldn’t be able to give him anything for Christmas.”
The women who use The Trussell Trust often say they feel encased by shame – the worry of judgement of others, embarrassed to have to resort to food vouchers. Some say they were frightened to go to the bank in case there were “food bank shopping bags” and others might see them carrying them, and were relieved that they were given “normal” carrier bags. Their fears ran so deeply that they felt they needed to keep up the facade that everything was OK, even in the most desperate of times.
What would happen to these people if The Trussell Trust wasn’t there? Who would provide for them? The government? Right now, they appear to be more of a cause than a solution. Would children sleep with hungry tummies? Would their parents, debating whether to put £5 on the gas and electric, or eat for another day, too?
We’ll flippantly say we’re hungry. We’ll be starving by lunch, ravenous for our tea as we endure the commute. But, for the most of us, thankfully, we have never felt real hunger. We’ve never felt the the weakening of limbs and paling of skin, the gnawing acidity of an empty stomach, the acute thwack of panic on seeing a week stretched out ahead, empty cupboards and a hungry child in front of us. We haven’t felt hollowed by the inability to eat, to provide, and the shame of it all.
Year in, year out, and especially at this time of year, more than 40,000 volunteers at The Trussell Trust protect millions of people from this plight. And now, more than ever, we all need to thank them for that.
WHat you can do to help
Volunteer. The Trussell Trust would not be able to provide the help they do without the 40,000 strong team of volunteers giving up a couple of hours of their time.
Is there a food bank in your area? Could you start your own? All Trussell Trust food banks are launched in partnership with local communities. It could have a huge impact on yours.
Enquire whether your company could partner with The Trussell Trust all year round. You never know...