Much has been written about Foodbanks, by statisticians, political writers, academics, and even our PM is rumoured to have made a "secret visit" to one, shamed into this, by constant barracking by the Labour Party in Parliament.
But who are the people the Foodbanks help? What are their stories? Cameron sees the rise of Foodbanks as "Big Society" in action. The opposition see Foodbanks as replacing the role Government should be filling with support services, the social fund and welfare benefits.
My local Foodbank is quite unusual in the fact that it is currently independent. It is run by a very small band of 4 or 5 volunteers who deliver food parcels after work and on weekends. There is no central premises dedicated to the Foodbank currently, although this will change soon due to the high demand. It serves a rural coastal area of N Wales for about 20 miles radius. Many of us who try to help out with donations drop our foodstuffs off with the volunteers who then distribute the food parcels to those in need. Job Centre staff issue vouchers to those in need and they are referred to the volunteers. The volunteers see their help as a "hand up" not a "hand out" but are seeing increasingly DESPARATE circumstances that will not be stop gapped by 2 or 3 food parcel deliveries but are ongoing.
This week a volunteer had a referral from a mother with 4 children under 16. She had been in work until a recent hysterectomy operation, and after the operation complications set in. She is not able to return to work presently. After paying her rent, utility bills etc she has £30 per week to feed her family and it is not enough. She herself eats one meal every other day, and is now sicker than she was. Her GP referred her to the Foodbank. She told the volunteers she buys big packets of pasta in the pound shop and tins of tomatoes to make a sauce. The children do without breakfast. She also buys tinned stewing steak and a 5lb bag of potatoes which has to last two days for meals. There is no room for fresh fruit. The Foodbank volunteer turned up with a box to last a week, with the promise of further help. The box contained Weetabix and Shredded Wheat cereal. The younger children started dancing around the house singing they were going to have cereal for breakfast the next day. "Heartbreaking" said the volunteer. "Children excited over cereal."
The volunteer who runs the facebook page for the Foodbank put out a request for donations of any pre-cooked food, camping stove equipment, and hot water bottles and a flask. She had turned up with a food parcel for a new mum with a 2 week old baby and her partner, to,find the flat they were living in was barely fit for habitation. The young couple had no cooker or microwave and so the volunteer was going to give them a 2 ring gas camping hob for the night while she tried to source a second hand cooker or microwave. They had no money left for electric and so the volunteer put £5 in the meter. The couples benefits were "being processed" which could mean a delay of up to 6 weeks, and were referred by the Job Centre. Some people donated home cooked meals that could be heated up readily enough, but a fridge was also needed. The wider society rallied round and provided the basics needed for living and the Foodbank helped out the couple until their benefits were sorted out. The Foodbank was the only "stop gap support" service for this young family. There was no other avenue for them to turn to.
A volunteer turned up at a flat of a young man with mental health difficulties. He had been referred by his GP. He was sat in the dark with his coat on as he had run out of electricity weeks earlier. He had a microwave but no cooker. Many volunteers say this is a common problem, that many people in need may only have a microwave oven at best, and no cooker. When they arrive at the address they often find food is only one of the issues; people running out of gas and electric or only being able to have the electric on for three or four days a week is a major concern. Also many people live in the worse privately rented accommodation where unscrupulous landlords, provide accommodation that is not fit for purpose and need extensive repairs. They "hoodwink" "people into believing repairs will be done shortly but never quite get round to doing them. Many people with learning difficulties or who simply do not know their rights, are living in terrible conditions. Foodbank volunteers are then placed in roles of "surrogate social workers" to try and not only fulfil the immediate food need but also get money into electric/gas metres, arrange cooking appliances, and try and get the landlord to repair the property. It is again a role volunteers should not be having to do, but they all say they cannot simply turn their backs on people in huge need.
A working couple, parents to three children under 10, in low paid Carers jobs in an old people's home were referred to the Foodbank by a volunteer who had overheard their plight whilst talking to them as they themselves volunteered at their children's local sports club. Their rent had gone up by £120 a month and so after bills and rent payments they had between £25-30 per week left to feed the family. The children were taking 1 sandwich each to school for lunch with a bottle of tap water and nothing else. Teachers had noticed the children were hungry in school and so had urged the family to get in
touch with the Foodbank. The family felt ashamed to ask for help as they were both in work, and thought volunteers would "judge" them on how they manage their finances. After a Foodbank volunteer had a quiet word with them, advising there was no shame in receiving a food parcel, they were delighted to be helped out with general foodstuffs and enough lunch food for the children at school. The volunteer said she was annoyed as those on low pay are not able to receive free school meals for their children: only those who are unemployed or on income support receive this help. She says parents on low pay ought to receive this help for children's school meals.
However, far from people needing one, two or three food parcels before they got back on their feet, volunteers are finding that due to low pay and soaring food, fuel, rent, transport costs, families need constant help, which will not be viable to maintain in the long run: nor should it be viable to do so long term. The huge array of "add on problems" are particularly worrying as food is just the primary problem for many. Education on household cooking is another major problem. Volunteers often turn up with pasta, pasta sauces, potatoes,vegetables, meat, and fruit, but many people simply look at the parcel in bewilderment as they have never been taught how to cook a basic meal like spaghetti bolognese or chilli con carne and rice or a stew for example. Many volunteers kindly take the time to cook a meal from scratch to show the person how to cook a basic meal that is nutritious and filling.
While Foodbanks look like they are here to stay for a good many years, the Government and the state cannot simply shove huge caring responsibilities onto the shoulders of volunteers under the umbrella of "Big Society". The Government have a duty to care for the vulnerable in society and address the issues urgently as to why Foodbanks are seeing people in work come to them for help in droves. It is not right and cannot be sustained. Foodbanks opening at the rate of 3 per week across the UK should be the Governments national shame: not ours.