Poverty is not just for Christmas

In Huddersfield, as in the rest of the country, food banks are facing growing demand from a wider range of people in need

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There aren’t many jobs where your purpose is to be out of employment but that is the reality for those who work at the UK’s 2,000 food banks.

“At the end of the day, food banks should not be needed. We don’t want to be here, but the income people receive is not sufficient to match people’s outgoings and that is not going to change anytime soon,” says Emma Greenough, fundraising manager for the Welcome Centre in Huddersfield, the biggest independent food bank in the country.

First opening its doors in the late 1990s, the centre now provides food parcels seven days a week to people across south Kirklees.

“There isn’t much we don’t take. We don’t take alcohol, for instance, and we’re usually over-run with pasta, but dried and tinned food as well as toiletries, bedding, blankets and pet food are very much welcome, and things like pots, plates and cutlery,” explains Greenough, who’s worked at the centre for the past decade.

Items donated by schools, churches, supermarkets, local businesses and individuals are sorted and packed by a group of volunteers at their warehouse in Lockwood, with one van delivering to up to 40 households a day and another collecting from the multiple food providers.

In addition, the centre provides an in-house advice and guidance service to help people with budgeting and money management, and signposts services for debt relief where necessary.

“It would often be single men who would use our service but it’s grown into more family-based services.”

“We also apply for grants and use that funding to purchase furniture and white goods and have just taken part in the Big Give campaign, raising over £15,600 to date, for an in-house fuel bank. The intention is we’ll be able to top up people’s gas and electricity or pay off arrears for them over the winter months, so they can warm their homes, make a meal and take a shower,” says Greenough, who admits their triumphs are bittersweet.

“Although we’re proud of what we achieve in the sense of how many people we support and how many thousands of meals we give out every year, we are not proud of the fact we’re one of the largest food banks.”

Of course, systemic changes are needed to tackle the expansive issues at play, including the inadequacies of the benefits system, but as lobbying continues, “we can only do what we can do,” says Greenough.

“We can shout loudly about these things, but we have very little influence and are essentially a sticking plaster. We just need to concentrate on being able to meet the needs of people in our community.”

Although September is an abundant time for the centre’s donations – “Churches are heavily involved in our support and we have between 80 and 100 harvest festivals within that period” – December is by far the busiest time of year.

“I think it’s a peak interest point for businesses, individuals and groups looking to do some good in the community, to help those less fortunate, and food banks are often a focal point,” says Greenough who advises donors to stick to evergreen products rather than seasonal items “so food doesn’t go past their best date and people aren’t eating mince pies in February.”

She adds: “But cash donations are best, simply because we have a much stronger purchasing power and can bulk buy at cost price.”

And support is needed all year round, not just at Christmas.

Following the Christmas rush, January is the quietest month for donations, and yet the number of people seeking help doesn’t decrease once the tinsel is taken down.

Between September 2021 and August 2022, the Welcome Centre gave out 19,735 crisis packs (17.2 per cent more than the previous year), supported 5,787 people in the local community, including 2,210 children, and provided enough food in their kits for 361,262 meals. The demographic is changing.

“Historically, it would often be single men who would use our service, but it’s grown considerably into more family-based services. Some people are living in households with multiple children and are really struggling to make ends meet, especially at Christmas with its added expectations and pressures,” says Greenough.

“The reasons why people turn to us have become more complex and varied, too. People are changing from short-term crisis to longer-term poverty.

“They might not be able to rely on friends or family as they used to, given so many people are struggling. We’re also seeing a lot more people in low-paid employment and zero-hour contracts come to us because with the rate of inflation, people’s incomes aren’t changing but obviously their outgoings are considerably.”

She emphasises the centre’s open-door policy.

“The purpose of our food bank is to support people, so making that first step is the most important thing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. The fact is it can happen to anybody.

“You might be in a perfectly stable financial situation and things can change at the drop of a hat. So if you are in need, don’t go hungry. That’s what we and all the other food banks are here for.”

‘This winter will be the hardest yet’

“People are struggling to afford the essentials and we are expecting that this winter will be the hardest yet for food banks and the people they support,” says Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, an organisation founded in 1997 that now supports over 1,200 food bank centres across the UK. 

 “Around 1.3 million emergency food parcels were provided to people between April and September this year by food banks in our network, and almost half a million of these went to children. 

“In the same six months, 320,000 people were forced to turn to a food bank for the first time. That’s a 40 per cent increase compared to the same period last year and the equivalent of everyone in Nottingham having to access a food bank,”

“With one in five people visiting a food bank coming from a working household, hunger is an issue that can touch all of us. The public has continued to be generous with its donations, but the need for food is far outstripping what we need now. Food banks are having to buy twice as much food as they did last year and that, combined with rising operational costs, is making it hard for them to keep going. 

“No one should have to use a food bank. We know with the right support and a stable and sufficient income people wouldn’t need emergency food aid.”

The Trussell Trust highlights three factors in the growing demand for food banks:  problems with the benefits system, including delays, inadequacy and reductions; challenging life experiences or ill-health, and lack of support.

Revie says: “We are calling on the UK government to bring benefits in line with the true cost of living. By failing to make benefits payments realistic for the times we face, the government now risks turning the cost-of-living crisis into a national emergency.”

Useful items you can donate to your local food bank

Fish (tinned)
Pasta sauce
Puddings (tinned or custard)
Tea and coffee
Tinned tomatoes
Toilet rolls
UHT Milk

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