We fear the worst is yet to come
Updated: May 11
Kate Brewster of the One Can Trust in Buckinghamshire
When I became a trustee at the One Can Trust food bank in Buckinghamshire just over two years ago, we were helping around 200 local people a week, which seemed a lot to me at the time. Fast forward to today and it’s a totally different organisation: the biggest food bank in the county – a tragic boast if ever there was one.
As the pandemic hit, numbers soared, more than tripling to 700 a week at their peak. We rapidly changed our model, recruited more volunteers and relied on the generosity of our community. Things started to look up a bit last summer and then came autumn’s sledgehammer assault: the cut to Universal Credit, end of furlough and rising prices, providing the perfect storm we feared. Today, we’re back to supporting more than 700 people a week – double what we were seeing six months ago.
A whole range of people are coming to our door – the 11-year-old boy who bravely called saying there was just a pint of milk and a tin of fish in his fridge, for his family of four; the family where mum and dad’s car and childcare businesses were wiped out overnight; the mum fleeing an abusive relationship; one of our own volunteers having to choose between that now much-used phrase ‘heating or eating’. These are just some of thousands of heart-breaking stories.
We’re also seeing mums on local Facebook pages, reaching out directly to their virtual neighbours; to quote one recently, “I’ve just put my last bit of money on electric. I was just wondering if anyone could help with a food parcel to get me through to Monday when I get paid from work.” Evidence, if you needed it, that food poverty definitely doesn’t discriminate against those in work, as we well know from our clients.
And with the worsening cost of living crisis, coupled with energy and national insurance hikes round the corner, we fear the worst is yet to come for many. I cannot imagine how stressful life is those we help and we know that a number of them, unsurprisingly, suffer with mental health issues. This is one area, among others, where we are trying to sign post to extra help but with financial support being so desperate, it’s hard for many to see a way out. In the same week, one client told me she didn’t know how she was going to survive, while another felt she was “being set up to fail.”
I recently did a radio interview where the presenter unhelpfully suggested that those using food banks might just be bad at budgeting. While a small number site debt as the cause of their referral, we see some excellent budgeting. We’ve had clients willingly show us their painstaking spreadsheets, detailing where every last penny is going. The reality is, they just don’t have enough to make ends meet. More than 40% of 111 new referrals last month stated insufficient benefits as the key reason they’d asked for food support.
The question for us as a food bank is how we keep, quite literally, feeding growing levels of demand. The cost of living is affecting us all. As other food banks are reporting, we’re already seeing a drop in donations. Last month we had to spend £10,000 (money which no longer goes as far as it once did) to bolster basics for our parcels. As it stands, we have some reserves, thanks to the support of our community and partners, but they will soon decline if need continues to escalate.
There are now thousands of food banks in the UK and it feels like we’ve become a permanent service providing long-term lifelines, rather than the short-term emergency support most of us were set up for. Widespread food bank support is dangerously close to becoming an accepted societal norm. This is not a sustainable solution. The goodwill of volunteers and the community cannot be relied upon, on this scale and indefinitely. And, even if it could be, it is simply not right that so many have to endure the stress of relying on food parcels.
The government must step in to provide adequate and fair financial support so that families and individuals on benefits and low incomes have the means to buy food for themselves and their families, while covering other essentials. In the meantime, while doing our best to support those who need us, we must also continue ensuring that their voices are heard, in the hope that this will help to drive positive change.
Kate Brewster is trustee of IFAN member the One Can Trust in Buckinghamshire.