The Chancellor says the economy is on the mend, but prices are rising and this winter many families are struggling to put on the table.

Traditionally, harvest-festival collections at schools and in churches have raised aid for those living in poverty in far-flung lands: Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Malawi. This year, however, many donated their collections straight back into their communities.

Britain’s economy is finally growing again. But one in five Britons lives below the poverty line (despite the fact we are the world’s sixth largest economy) and many are finding it harder than ever to put food on the table.

There are currently more than 400 Trussell Trust food banks across the UK and more are opening, at a rate of three per week. The latest figures show that 355,985 people received a minimum of three days’ emergency food from the banks between April to September this year – that’s triple the number helped in the same period last year. And as 2014 dawns, things will only get worse, says Trussell Trust’s executive chairman Chris Mould.

‘We have had several years of declining pay and prices going up,’ he explains. ‘It’s a bit like an elastic band. You can stretch more and more and more, then suddenly the whole thing goes. I don’t know how much more the elastic of people’s ability to cope is going to stretch.

‘In the next few months, we are going to see a real difference. There have been massive price rises. We know that the Government has capped welfare support; British Gas has put up its prices by 8.4 per cent. You don’t have to be good at maths to work out that there is a problem.

‘This winter is going to be really hard for people – the worst yet. And it does hurt women and children disproportionately. At least 120,000 of those we will be helping this winter will be children.’

Boxes contain three days’ worth food with a good nutritional balance

Chris Johnes, poverty programme director of Oxfam UK, believes these figures are unacceptable, as they ‘lay bare the shocking scale of destitution, hardship and hunger in the UK. It is completely unacceptable that in the seventh wealthiest nation on the planet, the number of people turning to food banks has tripled.’

Indeed, for the first time since the Second World War, the Red Cross will be distributing food aid to the needy in Britain this winter. And new research by think tank Resolution Foundation suggests that the number of UK workers earning below the living wage (£7.45 an hour outside London and £8.55 in the capital) has risen to 4.8 million (up from 3.4 million in 2009). In fact many of those going to a food bank for emergency food are in employment, Chris Mould explains.

‘It’s not just about those who don’t have work,’ he says. ‘About half the people we help are in work. They’ve got mortgages, or they’ve got rent to pay. They’ve got bills. They have to get to the place they work… and things just aren’t stretching any more.

‘If you are a household with one person in work and have children, you are hardest hit, and it’s not going to get better. Do I think more people will need help this winter? Without a shadow of a doubt. There is no evidence that pay is going up, but lots of evidence that costs are. There is no light at the end of the tunnel yet, unfortunately.’ In the months leading up to Christmas, as energy prices have soared, food banks have started seeing people unable to take certain foods, because they cannot afford to turn the cooker on to prepare it.

‘This is new and extremely worrying,’ says Chris Mould. ‘When you come to a food bank you can sit down and have a cup of tea. We have a list that ensures you get three days’ worth of food with a good nutritional balance. But now, people are saying, “I want that but I can’t afford to turn the electricity on to cook it”. Pasta, for instance, is not taken because the water has to be heated.’

The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity that does not affiliate itself with any political party and receives no government funding. It is estimated that in 2013 some 3.5 million people in the UK would have donated food to the charity. But by the end of 2014, Chris Mould believes there will be 700 to 800 food banks in operation, which has led the charity to call for a government inquiry into the problems underlying food poverty in the UK. In fact, David Cameron’s own poverty tsar, Frank Field, is reported to have urged the prime minister to set up an inquiry into the issue.

‘So many people say that we save their lives,’ Chris Mould concludes. ‘Some even say that they were at the end of their tether.’

The Trussell Trust serves people of all faith groups and beliefs, or none. To find out how to donate food, your time or money: 01722-580180, www.trusselltrust.org

Foodbank facts

  • Food boxes contain at least three days’ supply of non-perishable foods such as tinned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as pasta, cereal, UHT milk, sauces, tea and long-life juice.
  • More than 90 per cent of food given out by food banks is donated directly by the public. In 2012-13, 3,492.44 tonnes of non-perishable food was donated.
  • Between April to September 2013, 355,985 people received a minimum of three days’ emergency food from Trussell Trust Foodbanks (compared with 113,264 from April to September 2012). Of those helped in the past six months, more than 120,000 (35%) were children.
  • Trussell Trust Foodbank users are referred by a frontline care professional such as a doctor, social worker or schools liaison officer.

Feature first published in the Lady magazine

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