Carlisle City Council area has a population of 108,000 spread throughout the largest geographical area of any city in Britain. The major centre of population is Carlisle (75,000) with Brampton having 4,500 people and Longtown 3,000. The council area is 109thout of 326 on the English Indices of Deprivation and there are four council wards identified as being areas of deprivation. These are all within the Carlisle city area.
Carlisle Foodbank has always run on a voucher system. There is a relatively small population and over the seven years we have operated we have had a lot of familiar faces visit many times. To combat a dependence culture and what we know can be an abuse of the system and fraud we monitor referrals. The Foodbank covers the entire geographical area of Carlisle City Council and we record the ward areas. Consequently we know that Longtown and Brampton referrals are not statistically significant. Despite this we know that there is poverty in these areas.
At various times support workers from Brampton (Riverside Housing Association) and Longtown (Barnado’s) have collected parcels for those they have referred. We have also received referrals from the Tenant Farmers’ Association representative.
The major problem hampering many in rural areas is transport. Public transport is virtually non-existent in rural areas (and it is scarce in some city centre areas). Although the Foodbank provides free travel passes for Stagecoach buses for recipients of parcels this is of small help if people cannot afford to reach us in the first place.
The fundamental problem which is insuperable is that referring agencies, with few exceptions, are based in the city centre. The major exception is the community support team of Cumbria County Council which posts vouchers (although we have a procedure to shortcut this in cases of emergency). If it is necessary to visit the agency to collect a voucher then only having a central foodbank base makes sense. Thus several attempts to set up satellite foodbanks have always failed.
The whole question of rural poverty is one that has troubled us for as long as we have been in operation. I am meeting some social workers who work in the outlying areas to discuss this but we all agree that the lack of public transport is fundamental to difficulties in getting and keeping employment.
At the IFAN (Independent Food Aid Network) Conference in Chester last year we discussed at length the question of maintaining the dignity of those attending foodbanks. The present location of Carlisle Foodbank falls short in many ways but finding alternative accommodation is proving problematic. We ensure that nothing by way of carrier bags can identify recipients of parcels but the physical location of the foodbank in an iconic Grade I listed building in the centre of Carlisle militates against anonymity.
The question of dignity is one of the reasons against us opening satellite foodbanks. In smaller areas of population, it is far too easy to recognise recipients of parcels and this will be a disincentive to many.
Another option to get food to outlying areas has been the idea of a Food Train following the Dumfries model. Here again the easy identification of people receiving food parcels has meant we have not pursued this as an option and, in any event, does not solve the problem of issuing vouchers. Moreover, in an area where there is a limited pool of volunteers the personnel required to deliver parcels will be difficult to source. An option is to ask the representatives of local faith communities to deliver parcels back to their local areas when they bring us donations but that is asking too much of people already serving their communities. In any event we have off site collection points which have proved vital to some delivering from country areas but means that donors do not need to visit the foodbank to deliver donations.
The conclusion must be that to tackle the question of rural poverty the improvement of rural infrastructure with the prime objective being to provide a working public transport system is imperative. Also rural development grants to support SMEs in rural areas either by enhancing LEP capacity or rural development over and above LEP proposals must be introduced. To stop rural poverty being a long-term casualty of austerity will require serious investment from central government.