By midday the volunteers are ready and waiting inside the door of the red-brick church. The kettle is boiling and there are plates of biscuits. The small room is dotted with tables covered with brightly coloured clothes and mismatched vases of fresh flowers.
Outside, a middle-aged woman and her young daughter wait for the door to be unlocked. But they aren’t waiting for a service or a church meeting group, they are waiting to be given an emergency parcel of food.
Food bank use is on the rise. According to the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs 400 food banks across the UK, the number of people relying on their services to survive has tripled over the last three years.
Between April and September this year, the trust says it handed out emergency supplies for more than 350,000 people. A third of those were children.
In the red-brick church, the woman and her child have received several bags of food and left. She doesn’t want to talk about why she’s there, she just wants to get in and out as quickly as possible.
The bank has given her enough food to last each member of her household for three days, and also essentials like toiletries and toilet rolls. Food bags are made up on the spot depending on the recipient’s needs and what facilities, if any, they have for preparing meals.
John, the manager of this food bank in Warrington, in the north-west, explains that these food parcels are for people and families in crisis. “They can’t come every week, more like once every three months at the most. But we see most people just once, maybe twice. We couldn’t give regular parcels to everyone; we couldn’t keep up with demand!”
The food bank relies entirely on donations and is staffed by volunteers. John says that he needs volunteers who have compassion, but who can also keep “an element of detachment”. As the room fills up, it becomes apparent that some level of detachment is an essential survival trait for the staff.
At the door, 57-year-old Chris has arrived, clutching the referral slip he needs to access the food bank’s services. A brush with the criminal justice system has led to him finally being housed after 16 years on the street, but this has messed up his benefits payments and left him without money for basics like food.
The volunteers fetch him a cup of tea and ask a few essential questions. Does he have electricity? An oven? A kettle? Some customers don’t have such essential kitchen appliances and so there’s little point giving them tins of soup or instant noodles.
And Chris is being offered more than food. The volunteer sitting with him is referring him to the local clothing bank, and listening sympathetically as he talks about his alcohol addiction and the two daughters he has lost contact with.
Next there’s Jo, aged 42. She’s smartly dressed, with her hair tied in a neat bun, but she looks defeated. Jo lives alone with her husband and has been his carer while he struggles with mental ill health. However, he has been stripped of his Personal Independence Payment, a decision he’s appealing. In the meantime, there’s no food in the house and Jo has come to collect some emergency supplies.
“This government’s not got a clue about what it’s like for normal people,” she says in a resigned voice. If the food bank hadn’t been an option, what would she have done? “There’s nothing I could have done except try to borrow some money somehow.”
On the next table, 28-year-old Rose is talking to one of the volunteers. She’s explaining that she’s lost her benefits because she went into hospital and the evidence wasn’t passed to the jobcentre – it’s not clear if that’s her own fault or an admin error. “I had to go to hospital for a biopsy,” she reveals. “So I got sanctioned and lost my benefits. And now I have no food, but I have medicine I can only take with food. What do I do?” Rose says she is pregnant.
The volunteer helping her is Karen, and she works at the bank every week. “I want to see social justice,” she says passionately. “Society has to be made aware of how the welfare cuts are affecting the poorest people.”
Rose nods in agreement: “Cameron needs to get his arse in gear.”
The volunteers may try to distance themselves from the difficulties the food bank’s client’s face, but they all have stories that have affected them deeply. For one, it was the skinny man who had very little money left for food but had been using it to feed his dog rather than himself.
For another, it’s several clients on welfare benefits who they believe have been sanctioned for no reason, leaving them without money unfairly while they appeal.
Some of the people accepting food parcels are in work but have been hit by a crisis and left without cash. Others are undeniably chaotic, struggling to cope with issues such as homelessness and alcohol abuse.
And many have nowhere to turn but charities such as the Trussell Trust’s food banks. “Some people don’t have any safety net,” one volunteer comments. “You or I could go to family and at least get a meal, but for some of these people their families aren’t in a position to help them. They are just as chaotic themselves.”
David Cameron has come under pressure to look into the surge in demand for food banks, but the chancellor, George Osborne, has previously argued that the rise is simply because more people are aware of them.
When asked what they would do if the food bank wasn’t there, some say they would borrow money, others that they would beg or borrow food. But more than half, including possibly pregnant Rose, shake their heads and simply say: “Go hungry”
THIS IS PART OF 21st CENTURY GREAT BRITAIN!