In March 2021, reflecting on our food bank's journey through the pandemic in 2020, I asked the question, would things get worse before they get better? I now have an answer to that question - they got worse, much, much worse….
Our food bank provides a four-day food parcel to those who have need, and the numbers we have distributed speak for themselves: 2019 Total food parcels: 904 2020 Total food parcels: 2764 Jan-Jul 2021 Total food parcels: 3255
In 2020, on top of the food parcels we provided from the food bank, we gave out 759 three-day food parcels on behalf of Manchester City Councils Covid-19 response and 61 Christmas parcels, a bit over 37 tonnes of food, not including all the fresh fruit, vegetables and bread and cakes we collected from supermarkets and Fareshare.
Food banks provide short-term emergency food aid to those who require them, with the intention that the situation driving them to require food bank assistance would be resolved, or more appropriate long-term support found within a short time frame. I could give example after example of how this pandemic has caused heartache and financial difficulties for so many people but for me, the way that our food bank has adapted to become the main provider of food for some of our households is the most telling story.
I mentioned in my last blog that in 2020 just 12 households received a total of 563 food parcels, with one household receiving 78 parcels over the course of the year. This ongoing need has not decreased, in the first 6 months of 2021, 26 households have received a total of 590 parcels. We review each of these guests on a regular basis, and know them and their situations well, and although we want to be able to provide this ongoing support as it's needed, we take no pride in becoming the main food provider. As a food bank, we felt we had little option, cutting our support could drive each of these households into further poverty, potentially leaving them unable to eat.
Our food bank manager recently reflected on the effects of the pandemic, commenting that, “the saddest day was when I received a number of phone calls from children calling and asking for food for their families. Their parents were ill in bed, they were looking after their younger siblings, all their usual support network of aunties and uncles were isolating and they needed help. As part of the Ardwick and Longsight Mutual Aid group, I had good contacts and was able to navigate the correct safeguarding channels, and also contacted the pastoral teams at the schools those children attended to ensure they had ongoing support. One thing this year has demonstrated is our need of networks that support the work being done in different sectors. None of us can do this alone.”
With all that said, I must say that looking back on all that has happened since my last blog, there's been much positive local action. Business, schools, community groups, individuals and others, have continued to provide us with the food we need and despite the continued increase in the number of food parcels we provided, we have never run out of food. We have also never run out of volunteers to collect, deliver, sort, clean, purchase, spend hours making phone calls and replying to emails, going above and beyond to ensure that those who have asked for our help have always received a parcel that is tailored to the recipient’s needs.
So where do we go from here?
A report by Feeding Britain states that “One of the reasons that hunger has not moved higher up the political agenda, and stayed there, is that the worst consequences of hunger amongst the poorest in our society are alleviated by the voluntary sector and communities.” Our food banks and community grocers, alongside other food aid projects, mask the real levels of food poverty within our society, and whilst I do not advocate that we close our doors in order to raise the profile of those in need, collective action within our societies to raise the profile of those in poverty must be taken.
We saw this collective voice used powerfully and with great effect in the campaign run by Marcus Rashford, to ensure that school children were provided with food during the holidays. Charities such as IFAN and the Trussell Trust, have been campaigning for many years to see the end of food poverty, yet the levels of food poverty continue to grow.
A few years ago, I lost my job and turned to Universal Credit for support whilst looking for further employment. I am educated, have a mortgage, and am single, at the time, after a 5 week wait, I could claim £74.96 per week, a total of £3897.92 per year. If my council had deemed me eligible, I could have had my council tax reduced by up to £14.29 per week, however I didn’t qualify. There was no support toward the cost of my mortgage until I had been unemployed for 9 months, at which point I could claim a loan of approximately £19.29 per week, repayable with daily interest on sale of my home, or my death. Needless to say, £74.96 was not enough for me to live on, and the prospect of losing my home was very real.
Had I been unemployed during the pandemic, this amount would have increased to £94.96 per week, or £4937 per year, hardly a sum to be envious of, and yet the government is currently seeking to remove this £20 a week uplift on October 6th, to encourage people back in to work rather than claim benefits. I’ll leave you to decide if the additional £20 a week uplift would have prevented me seeking further employment.
As a society we face a choice. We can choose to live with the increasing levels of poverty and hunger around us, hoping that our own households won’t befall a circumstance that drive us to the doors of a food bank, or we can begin to ask questions of our systems and structures to examine the reasons the UK is seeing such a sustained increase in inequalities.
These inequalities existed before the pandemic struck, but the pandemic has bought them to the fore. As the country starts to recover, we must ensure that these ever-increasing inequalities do not become further embedded into the social norm. The issue of inequality affects the whole of society, not just the poor and have a huge effect on our society, affecting young and old alike. There is a vast amount of evidence that shows that the inequalities that affect children continue into adulthood, and place an increased pressure on our criminal justice system, health care services, social care services, schools, to name but a few, increasing the burden on already over stretched government services.
The benefits to society of ensuring that our young people and their households are adequately fed and housed, will, in the long-term provide better life chances for those who already face disproportionately higher rates of unemployment, adverse health conditions, and low paid, insecure work. This in turn reduces inequalities and the costs to the state in supporting people, a benefit to the whole of society.
I hear many people when talking about the pandemic saying “we are all in the same storm.” While this is true, some faced this storm harboured in a super yacht, and others faced it clinging to a life buoy whilst the waves crashed around them. As some begin to recover from this storm, for others, the storm continues to rage. Many of the key workers that we clapped for last year, alongside many of those in the lowest paid jobs, are now facing a perfect storm. With furlough ending, jobs are becoming increasingly insecure, while many others are working reduced hours, fuel, energy and grocery bills are increasing at an alarming rate. On top of this, the supermarket shelves are beginning to empty again, which is not only making it difficult for households, but also increasingly difficult for our food bank to find the supplies we need to provide our food parcels.
Achieving an end to hunger is not an easy process, there is no quick fix or three-word slogan that will achieve this, but we can all collectively make a difference. Collectively we must call our governments to account, asking them why so many in our society are going hungry, and compelling them to ensure that the most basic needs of its citizens are met by putting in place legislation to ensure that everyone in society has the right to be able to afford good quality, healthy food. As our country recovers, I want our society to be one that helps and supports people in their time of need, one that provides opportunity to all, regardless of the circumstances they face or the start they had in life, none of us can do this alone.
Just as we adapted to the pandemic, our food bank is trying to prepare for the impact of the cut in universal credit, the increase in household bills and the ending of the furlough scheme. We remain ready to support those who come to us as best we can regardless of the circumstance bringing them to our door. A young mother and her family attended our food bank. Mum came in to collect the parcel whilst the children waited downstairs with her partner. When the food parcel was carried down, with no prompting, the children became really excited with one exclaiming “oh wow, the fridge will be full tonight.” As the parcel was handed over, and I watched as the children went through the bags becoming increasingly excited as they found the toothbrushes, toothpaste and a bar of soap. When children in our country understand hunger and empty fridges, something is wrong.