This week’s figures from the Trussell Trust give a glimpse to the rise in foodbank use in the UK in recent years. The Trussell Trust only represent a fraction of the UK’s emergency provision. And in this blog John Hay of the Orchard, an independent food bank, talks about the reality of rising food bank use in Liverpool.
It’s disappointing but unsurprising to read that the use of food banks operated by the Trussell Trust has increased.
Thanks to the work IFAN has done, we now know we are one of 746 independent food banks operating in the UK – which is both disheartening and a bit humbling at the same time. This figure doesn’t even include hundreds more food aid providers that are out there from community kitchens to community pantries to emergency meal providers. Anyway, the reason this is important is that the Trussell Trust gave out 1.3 million food parcels last year and that figure relates to only 2/3 of the food bank side of UK food aid provision.
The Orchard opened its doors for the first time a little over 14 months ago and since then we’ve given out over 2000 bags of food to people living in the Speke and Garston areas of Liverpool. In our original location (a run-down community centre with some labyrinth-like corridors lined with those huge cupboards which look like you can access Narnia from within them) we were catering for a range of people. The naturally broad footfall of the centre meant that we could tap into different pockets of what can be quite an isolated community.
A few months back we moved up the road into a ‘community hub’ which is an old Methodist church. The room we’re in is just as beaten up as the original centre except it now comes with the additional benefit of incredibly poor lighting.
The new location has brought with it greater access to those in the area who are retired and struggling to survive on their pensions, often coupled with failing health.
This got me thinking – we always knew we were catering for the working poor (we’ve had all kinds of workers in from across the spectrum) but what didn’t really dawn on me until the last few months is in just how bad shape some of the elderly, most vulnerable people in our society are when it comes to food insecurity.
Every week Rose turns up. She’s 78 and suffering from loads of health problems – top of the list being stomach cancer. She generally arrives quite early so she can be at the front of the queue and pick up a bag of food from us before she heads out for chemotherapy. It’s strange – writing and speaking about this story is so normal to me by now that I have to remind myself just how bad things are; a 78 year old cancer patient is having to use a food bank because she can’t afford to buy the food she needs from shops she can’t get to easily.
At this stage I generally lose it about how much it grinds my gears that in the fifth biggest national economy in the world by GDP this kind of thing is happening etc.
I digress again.
We have a queue about 15 minutes before we open at 10am because we’re the only food bank in the area which doesn’t operate a voucher system. Because we accept that people can have more than 3 crises a year and requiring that piece of paper seems to us to erect more barriers to tackling hunger than it solves, we decided we wouldn’t bother with any of that. I think I’m also right in saying we’re the only food bank in the area which distributes fresh produce.
At the recent IFAN AGM I made the point that our role isn’t necessarily about tackling hunger, it’s about tackling hardship. I say this because as I see it giving out a bag of food to somebody on a Friday doesn’t just give them something to eat, it relieves them of the need to buy something to eat and vicariously helps them pay to heat their home, or get a bus to a job interview and so on.
The imperfect multifaceted problem we’re really fighting is low income – we’re just doing what we can to repair one face of it which we call ‘food insecurity.’ Some of the other faces might be named ‘really terrible accessible food which has the same nutritional value as a beermat’ and ‘living wages for people who want to be as passionate about having the means to heat their homes as well as eat in them.’ I’m sure there are more catchy titles out there if we give it some thought.
Sadly it seems there’s a long way to go before the government will be basing a plan for tackling the problem of low income on comprehensive data around household food insecurity. Which is a shame because I think it’s the most appropriate place to start.
I’m quite hot on collecting data (marketing background which I can’t seem to shake) and it frustrates me that nobody in the higher echelons of our government seems to care about what we can demonstrate. For instance, I can prove The Orchard is generally catering for those aged 60+ who state their primary reason for visiting our food bank that week as ‘low income’ due to their limited pension. Not those on benefits who might generally have more regular contact with ‘the system’ which can give them a voucher (3 times a year). Low Income is by far the most recorded reason for people visiting The Orchard.
This is really important and paints a picture of the problem we’re all trying to tackle.
And it’s a problem that’s getting bigger.
The first step is measuring it properly.
John Hay, Independent Food Bank Manager, The Orchard, Member of the Independent Food Aid Network