We live in Food Bank Britain and should be furious

by georgehep

I am glad I braved the snow to attend the Food Bank AGM. I came away shocked, grateful and angry in equal measure.

I went with low expectations. As a veteran attender of such events, I expected an interminably long meeting which would not explain the finances followed by vast mountains of stodgy food when everyone just wanted to get home.

How wrong I was. I was offered a hot drink and finger sized portion of cake on arrival. The co ordinator gave a succinct power point presentation, the treasurer talked us confidently through the accounts and, with an eye on the weather, all was wound up in 40 minutes. Job done.

And what a job they do. This was the lesser known West Northumberland Food Bank, based in affluent Hexham with outposts in Prudhoe and Haltwhistle. It is a leanly run organisation, four years old, and a superb example of what a small  charity can achieve.

I was shocked by the facts presented to the meeting and they bear repeating. Requests for food parcels doubled in the last year with 2194 requests for help. These are not a few habitual attenders. 35% of the clients only visited the Food Bank once and a further 42% made less than 6 visits. Food poverty is widespread even in well to do areas.

18% of the requests came from people in low paid employment who typically worked few hours, often on zero hour contracts, with no job security. This is the desperate state of the modern job market.

42% of the requests came from people in debt, with talk of loan sharks prevalent in Haltwhistle. 30% came from people with mental health problems and a further 30% from people with physical health problems. We are not looking after the sick in our society.

22% of the visitors were experiencing delays in receiving their benefits and 11% had been sanctioned. We have devised a pernicious benefits system  which reduces claimants to hunger.

I was grateful for the generous outflowing of public support for the Food Bank. Local people donated an estimated £46,000 of food and household goods last year. Others made regular cash donations which, the Treasurer pointed out, are needed to pay modest wages.

In all, 83 volunteers provided 1,400 hours of their time last year to help run the Food Bank including a group of 19 volunteers trained in welfare rights. I realised there is much more to the Food Bank than giving out food. One of the recipients, quoted in the Annual Report, said this:

“ I was put on Universal Credit when I lost my job. I managed for four weeks without any money but was stressed all the time and ran out of food. Someone told me about the Food Bank and it took a lot of courage to go. When I walked in I burst into tears and could hardly speak I was so upset and ashamed. A lady took me to one side, made me a cup of tea and listened when I was feeling calmer. She was lovely and told me I could apply for an advance payment which I didn’t know about and she helped me phone the jobcentre to apply for one. I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for the Food Bank and their kindness.”

The Food Bank support worker predicted the situation will get worse as Universal Credit is finally “rolled out” in Northumberland later this year and as other advice agencies pull out. CAB drop in sessions at Prudhoe and Haltwhistle were cut  last year and  all that is left is the Food Bank.

I was angry that we are in this state. The Chair said that the original goal of the Food Bank was to be obsolete. It should have been a temporary sticking plaster. But he now sees food banks becoming part of the fabric of society. This is shocking. We are going backward to days of handouts  before the welfare state.

When  David Knayston comes to write the social history of our day, he should call this volume  ‘Food Bank  Britain.’  The rise of the food bank movement in the United Kingdom almost exactly mirrors the Cameron years and is due to the recession, austerity policies  and welfare reforms.

The government may be tearing itself apart over Brexit but it will be remembered by posterity as the time when private enterprise failed, local authorities went bankrupt, living standards fell and people went hungry.

The Food Bank tries to remain apolitical and says politicians only call at election time to have photos taken. When the next election comes, I hope everyone who uses and supports food banks ask candidates about their policies on welfare benefits and votes accordingly. Our compassion for the hungry needs to be turned into outrage at the ballot box.

Ursula le Guin died recently. I returned home earlier than expected  from the Food Bank AGM  and finished one of her classic stories written in the seventies  about an eminent physicist who travels to a more prosperous planet where he hopes his work will be appreciated. He finds himself cossetted in a well heeled university, dressed in the best clothes and served the finest food. He is oblivious to the living conditions of the oppressed  working people around him whom the government carefully keeps out of sight. Is this dystopian world so far fetched?

Published in Newcastle Journal on 6th March 2018