Michele Lawrence, the manager of a Trussell Trust food bank in the London borough of Brent, recalls the moment four years ago when she decided to put on a Christmas Eve lunch for anyone in need in her community, and their children.
“A lady came to the food bank and asked me if we were going to be open just before Christmas. When I said no, she said, ‘Oh well, that’s bread and sardines for Christmas dinner again.’
“I said, ‘Right, come back and see me on Christmas Eve’. Then I walked down the road to the butchers and said, ‘We’re the local food bank, Christmas is around the corner and people are saying they won’t have Christmas dinner. Can you give me a box of chicken?’ When he did, I decided to try a few more stores. Everyone that we went to said yes.”
That Christmas, Michele cooked a Jamaican Christmas dinner to feed 50 people. More than 80 turned up. This year she is expecting two hundred. As well as a meal on the day, they will also be taking home festive food hampers, winter coats and scarves and Xmas presents, all of which have been donated by local individuals, schools and businesses.
“A lot of people might know that food banks exist, but I don’t think they fully understand what people are having to live through every single day in this county,” says Michele, whose food bank is in one of the most deprived boroughs in the capital.
“We have mothers who are skipping meals to make sure their children eat. We know parents who take their children to school, then just walk the streets until they pick them back up, because they’ve got one or two pounds on an electricity metre and want to save that for when the children come home.
“One lady came through the door one winter, literally shaking, and stood by the heater for the whole three-hour session, drinking tea, just to keep warm. When we spoke to her she said she’d had no heating for three months, and very little food. She would sit with her blow heater most of the time, until the electricity ran out.
“You wouldn’t believe the stories we hear. At the same time, it’s amazing how many people in our community want to do something to help. They just need to know how.”
The story of bread and sardines for Christmas sounds straight out of Dickens. Unfortunately, such Victorian levels of poverty and hunger are becoming a fact of life in contemporary Britain.
Between April and September this year the Trussell Trust distributed more than 500,000 emergency food parcels to people in crisis – over 188,500 of them to children.
That means that for the 2016-17 financial year the anti-poverty charity is set to distribute the highest number of food parcels in its 12-year history.
And that demand always gets higher at Christmas. Trust figures show that last December there was a 45% increase in the number of three-day emergency food supplies it provided, compared to the monthly average for 2015. Analysis of five years of Trussell’s food bank data by the University of Hull confirms a striking seasonal spike during the festive season.
So as food banks brace for their busiest month of the year, the trust is calling on people to support their local food bank to help families facing hunger this Christmas.
It’s nothing less than a national crisis, of the most shameful kind
The trust’s call is echoed by UNISON, many of whose members are among the country’s growing number of ‘working poor’ who also find themselves with no choice but to visit food banks.
The union’s annual survey of health staff across the UK found that almost half of respondents were seeking financial help, just to make ends meet, while 1% said they had visited food banks in the past year.
“Britain is one of the richest countries in the world, and yet parents are forced to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids,” says UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis. “Far too often they’re unable to do either of those things.
“The rise of food banks shows no signs of abating. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, with 13 million people in the UK now living below the poverty line. It’s nothing less than a national crisis, of the most shameful kind.”
The Trussell Trust co-ordinates the UK’s largest food bank network, with 421 food banks supplying 1,376 distribution centres. Professionals such as doctors, health visitors, schools and social workers identify people in crisis and issue them with a food bank voucher, which entitles them to receive a parcel of three days’ nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food.
UNISON branches can also arrange to make such referrals.
On the basis that people need two food bank referrals a year, on average, the trust estimates that more than a quarter of a million people requested help between April and September.
And, in a chilling affirmation of Ken Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, the trust has revealed that delays and changes to benefits account for 44% of all referrals.
After benefits problems (27.4% benefit delay, 16.6% benefit changes), low income is the second largest cause of emergency need, accounting for nearly one in four of all referrals.
Trussell Trust chief executive David McAuley comments: “It’s clear that more can be done to get people back on their feet faster.
“Many food banks now host independent welfare and debt advisers, but they can’t solve all the issues. To stop UK hunger we must make sure the welfare system works fairly and compassionately.”
The trust is now calling for a food bank telephone hotline to local Job Centres, which would help its volunteers to better support people who have been referred to them due to problems with a welfare claim.
At the moment, food bank managers, volunteers and welfare advisers who are trying to achieve this are spending a significant amount of time on hold to generic DWP phone lines.
A hotline would enable them to help people in crisis more quickly and efficiently, reducing the stress caused by financial hardship – and possibly preventing people from needing the food bank again.
In the meantime, food banks are gearing up for Christmas – in a way that is much more urgent than the consumerist frenzy of the high street stores.
The best of the Christmas spirit really does apply to Michele Lawrence, who has been running the Brent food bank since it was established in 2011, and thousands of others doing similar work all over the UK.
“The food bank opened my eyes to what’s happening in this country, to the fact that so many people are living in hidden poverty,” says Michele.
“And it’s changed me. I think I used to take things for granted a bit too much. I appreciate everything so much more now. I never buy more than I need, I don’t waste anything. And I can’t really see myself working anywhere else than in a food bank.
“I could do this for the rest of my life and I would be the happiest person alive.”
Ways in which branches get help:
- find out what Trussell Trust food banks are in your area, or go to the local council website for food banks operated by other organisations;
- register with local food banks, in order to make emergency referrals;
- organise collection points at workplaces or branch offices, to enable members and others to donate food.
UNISON’s welfare charity There for You offers one-off emergency help with food and emergency fuel. And with rising fuel costs and another cold winter looming, it has also launched its annual winter fuel grant.
Find out more about how There For You can help you or your members, at the website or by calling 020 7121 5620.
Photographs by Ralph Hodgson