At a time of growing levels of obesity, surplus agricultural production, bookshops laden with cookery books and fewer children and pensioners in poverty, why is it that more people seem to rely on food parcels? Or should it be any surprise given that more than four million people in the UK are estimated as having to do without a regular main meal and many others have to cut back on food in order to make ends meet?
Food parcel schemes exist all over the country, ranging from one-off deliveries at festive times through to schemes helping hundreds. Usually run by faith-based groups, a typical food parcel scheme will provide a basic carrier bag of foodstuffs to someone who is destitute and hungry.
And these schemes exist in places you wouldn’t expect to see them. For example, the Churches Housing Action Team in the Devon town of Tiverton (population 17,500) runs a scheme providing food to about 150 people a month while in prosperous Amersham, the Lions and Rotary Clubs distribute more than 600 food parcels at Christmas.
In the larger conurbations, the scale is that much greater. The Jesus Centre in Coventry distributes more than 100 food parcels a month to destitute people while Coventry Cyrenians also runs a food parcel scheme. In addition, similar schemes as well as cheap canteens for people experiencing food poverty are provided by at least two other organisations in the city. Multiply these figures nationally, and you have many thousands of people relying on food parcels and free or nominal cost meals.
Nationally, the organisation Fare Share established in 1994, co-ordinates the distribution of surplus food from the food and retail industry to local groups that provide food parcels or free meals. Such is the scale of its operation that in 2006 Fare Share distributed 2,000 tons of surplus food, feeding 16,000 people a day and providing 3.3 million meals a year. While some of this food was distributed to day centres and hostels, a significant proportion was given directly to people who were without any other immediate access to food and who would otherwise have been hungry.
Some of those who rely on food parcel schemes are ones you might expect, such as rough sleepers. But many are “ordinary” benefit claimants left hungry as a direct result of failures in the social security system. A system that has shown signs of underperformance in recent years with the well-documented challenges facing Jobcentre Plus with its new telephone-based processes underpinning staff cuts.
John Avill, advice manager at Coventry Cyrenians, says: “We are providing food to 80 people a month. We have seen a huge increase in demand since Jobcentre Plus insisted on telephone-based services.” Avill’s concerns are echoed by Piers Young, manager at Coventry’s Jesus Centre: “Many recipients [of our food parcels] state that they need them because of benefit delays.”
In response to these concerns a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson says: “We will always endeavour to get immediate financial assistance, for example crisis loans, to those most in need.”
There are also large numbers of destitute asylum seekers, cut off from all state financial support, being fed by faith groups, campaigning groups and the British Red Cross. The latter conservatively estimates that it supported 254 destitute asylum seekers in the London area alone during the first quarter of 2007 and it has earmarked £300,000 nationally this year to provide such support.
Many of the foundations of welfare reform, as well as new processes for delivering welfare, were inspired by changes in the US. And as the numbers on welfare in the US have fallen – according to secular umbrella group Second Harvest – the numbers reliant on food banks, as they are known in the US, have risen to over 25 million. This is 8% of the population.
More than a third of recipients include households with children and another third include people who are working yet are still unable to afford their own grocery bills. This means that food banks have become a major feature of the US welfare system with large-scale involvement by faith groups, corporations, pressure groups and the public sector. Second Harvest in the US estimates that 43,141 organisations provide some form of food bank facility and most report an increase in demand in recent years.
As welfare reform in the UK gathers pace, is this the shape of things to come?
Neil Bateman is a welfare rights specialist. He has no allegiance to any faith.
Five Loaves and Two Fishes Project, Bristol
Based in inner-city Bristol, the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Project is the name for the work of four nuns who belong to the Community of the Sisters of the Church, an Anglican religious community. The four nuns moved to Bristol in 1991 and their aim is to respond to local needs while also operating as a religious community. Sister Annalies says: “While we are here first as a religious community, we feel it is our calling to respond to local needs.”
The scale and depth of needs in inner-city Bristol is immense and has led the sisters to provide community-based support services to local people – irrespective of service users’ faith (or none), belief or personal philosophy.
The work includes befriending as well as providing practical support particularly if people are vulnerable, including those with challenging addictions and sex workers. “We are just dealing with the tip of the iceberg and it is important to recognise that we cannot meet all the needs in the area,” says Sister Annalies.
The sisters have also been involved in a variety of other local projects – such as helping with Refugee Action, a local nightshelter and the One25 Project for women involved in the street-based sex industry in Bristol.
Assisted by more than 100 volunteers – many of whom are ex-service users – the project is entirely supported by donations in cash and kind. The service is not advertised and the demand comes via word of mouth in the local community.
Early on, it became clear that many people in the locality were destitute. The sisters started providing food parcels on an ad hoc basis. Now more than 200 food parcels a week are provided to people in the area who are unable to feed themselves.
During Christmas week, numbers rise to 500 and in addition 100 local people come for a Christmas dinner. Recipients include not only substance misusers but also many single parents and younger adults living in insecure housing. Demand for the service has grown in recent years and problems with the benefits system which can leave people without funds are a common cause.
Feedback from service users shows just how vital the service is. One single father says: “If it wasn’t for the food I get here every week, I would have to resort to begging.”
This article appeared in the 17 May issue under the headline “Food for thought”