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Will things get worse before they get better?

Andrew Hurrell reflects on the relentless provision of emergency food parcels with no end in sight

Ardwick and Longsight foodbank was a small independent food bank based a few miles from Manchester City Centre, run entirely by volunteers, officially opening just two afternoons a week. With the announcement of the first national lockdown in March, we braced ourselves for an increase, what followed was a journey that none of us could have imagined.

The increase in demand was almost instant and we shot from providing 80 food parcels in March 2019 to 106 in 2020. To give you an idea of just how much we grew, we went from providing a total of 904 food parcels in 2019 to 2764 food parcels in 2020, a 206% increase.

The increase in the numbers of food parcels provided is just one part of the story.

We are very aware that many of our clients fall within the vulnerable group, as do a number of our volunteers, to protect them we decided to switch from a walk-in service to a delivery system almost overnight. Not only did we now have to design and implement a delivery system, we had to find some people to deliver the parcels. On top of this, the supermarket shelves emptied, the donations dried up and the increase in demand just kept on increasing. I vividly remember looking round our shelving at the end of each session and wondering just how we would cope and where the supplies would come from for the next session. Incredibly, we have never run out of food and never had to turn anyone away who required our support.

 

Somewhere in all the busyness, Manchester City Council asked if we could support their humanitarian response to those who were shielding, and we said yes! On top of all the food parcels provided by our food bank, in just a few months we delivered 759 of these three-day parcels on the councils’ behalf in the mornings before our food bank sessions started.

 

This meant that for some, our little food bank became an almost full-time job, and a small but very dedicated team became a large dynamic group with new roles and responsibilities; contacting clients, packing food parcels, organising drivers, shopping (this was a new, and in the first few months, very demanding role, because if there was no pasta on the shelves for the public, then there is no pasta for the food bank!). Reflecting on the last year one of our volunteers commented, “all I can remember is making up food parcels, falling asleep, eating, and making up more food parcels. Sometimes I dream about food parcels!”

 

Not only did the number of referrals increase, we also adapted to the needs of the clients we supported. Prior to the pandemic, with the odd exception, we had a policy of supporting each household with a maximum of three food parcels, if they still required support, we would direct them to another food bank in the area. As we listened to our clients stories, we realised the situations they faced were not going to change in the near future; furlough reducing income, children being home from school, or loss of a job with little prospect of finding further employment etc. We responded and began to provide ongoing support to a substantial number of our clients, over 26 household received 20+ food parcels (one client received 76 food parcels throughout the year!)

 

Covid-19 was added to our list of reasons for referral in mid-March and it quickly became our most cited reason, 296 of the 1176 households cited Covid-19 as their main reason, with 105 of these households with children. 286 households cited budgeting issues, and 188, delays in benefits or awaiting benefit claim. I am certain that if we had probed further, many of them would have Covid-19 as an underlying reason, however, we do not push too hard as we feel provision of food is more important than pushing for reasons.

 

Our volunteers have been amazing, tirelessly giving their time, some working almost full-time, to ensure nobody who asks for help needs to be turned away. But this continued increase, and continued demand is taking its toll, some are heading back to work as restrictions lift, other are becoming weary. Although it pains us, we are beginning to think of ways to target our support as, unless something changes, we may be unable to sustain this level. Recently we decided to provide only one parcel to self-referrals, working with them to obtain a referral from an organisation before providing further parcels. There are concerns with this as we are aware that the Job Centre no longer meets as many people face-to-face, meaning adult only households are struggling to find a referral route, of the 153 households who self-referred in 2020, only 57 households had children.

 

In a 2014 parliamentary debate on food bank use, Grahame Morris MP said “the acceptable level of food bank usage is zero. Access to adequate nutrition is a basic human right, and there is no excuse, even in a time of austerity, for a modern and rich country … to be unable to meet the food needs of its people.” We have gone backward since this debate, food bank use is rising, poverty is increasing, and Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequality that exists in society. Those who our food banks serve appear forgotten by those in power as we face an unprecedented and seemingly ever-increasing demand, I fear things will get worse before they get better.

 

A few days after the lockdown took effect on the 16th of March 2020, the government enacted a piece of legislation that ensures every consumer in the UK has the right to a fast broadband connection; surely with so many people starving, we must legislate that every person in the UK should have the right to access healthy, nutritious food.

 

Legislating for the right to food is by no means an easy task, it involves difficult, complex questions that have difficult and complex answers. There are many ways to tackle food poverty, but unless the thinking is joined up, unless the entire issue of food poverty is looked at as a whole, there will always be those who slip through the net, those who do not qualify. Enshrining the right to food into law provides a focus for all governments, regardless of political allegiances, policy priorities, the election cycle, forcing answers to serious questions about the levels of food poverty in this county.

 

A governments first job is the welfare and protection of its citizens, with so many living in poverty and turning to food banks, we must ask if they are doing this job well enough. It cannot be right that volunteers are left to fill the void, providing for such a basic fundamental need as food.

 

As a country, we jumped on board the amazing campaign by Marcus Rashford which forced the government to provide lunches to school children throughout the holidays. Marcus is now working hard, campaigning to bring an end to child food poverty in the UK, and I applaud the wonderful work that his organisation is doing, but this is not enough.

 

As the vaccine rolls out and restrictions begin to be lifted, many of those businesses that clung on with limited support and furlough may find it impossible to reopen, or demand for their service has reduced. Unemployment is expected to hit 6%, pushing more and more people into poverty and desperation, into the doors of a food bank. This affects adults as well as children, it affects the whole of society, not just those who are hungry. We must be seeking to end ALL food poverty. The mantra of health professional’s regarding the Covid-19 vaccine is “nobody is safe until everybody is safe”; “we all suffer if one suffers” must be the mantra for food poverty.

 

Alongside the thousands of volunteers across the country, we will be waiting, ready to step in where successive governments have failed, providing the basics of life to those who need it the most.

 

The journey of the pandemic we began in 2020 continues unrelenting into 2021, in January 2021 we provided 579 food parcels, an uplift of 704% on 2020! At this moment, we do not know where this journey ends.

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