When You Run a Foodbank, Our Food Poverty Crisis Becomes All More Real

York Foodbank Manager, Laura Chalmers explores the reality of hunger in the UK.

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I like to be optimistic and would like to think that we won’t have York Foodbank in another three years, simply because there will no longer be a need for it. For that to happen we must listen to the experiences of the people that we see. We must support people and help them out of crisis, but we must also identify what is driving people into Foodbanks, then advocate for change.

A 52-year-old man who came to us recently had worked in transportation his entire life, and seemed to have had a very comfortable life – married with two teenage girls at university. Unfortunately he was made redundant from his job and found himself signing on to Job Seekers Allowance. At that age he found getting his head around the welfare system, and in particular the IT, very difficult. His daughters were helping him with this and he was doing his best to keep to his claimant commitment. Soon after this his wife left him, and he had to sell the family home as a result. The stress of it all caused a suspected heart attack; unfortunately for him it was on a day that he had an appointment at the Job Centre. He rang from the hospital to explain that he would miss his appointment but couldn’t get through to anyone. As a consequence of this he was sanctioned for nine weeks. Nine weeks of no income. He came to the Foodbank and was highly emotional about what had happened to him, we sat down with him and listened. He said, “I have never had to ask for help before in my life, I don’t know how it has come to this!”

It’s uncomfortable to think how close so many of us could be to crisis ourselves. When you run a foodbank, and meet people from so many walks of life, this becomes all the more real.

York Foodbank has been open for nearly three years and runs four distribution centres across the most deprived areas of York. Over the last year we have been averaging giving three days food to between 400 and 600 people a month, hitting a peak in the school summer holidays with families who would usually get free school meals.

Latest Trussell Trust figures released today show that nationwide foodbank use is still at record levels and that hunger is still a major problem for low income families. Between April and September 2015, Trussell Trust foodbanks across the UK gave 506,369 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 492,641 in the same period last year.

Over the last six months, we provided three days emergency food supplies for 1,640 people: 39% of referrals were due to benefits related issues, such as sanctions or delays as they transfer from one benefit to another. 22% were ‘low income’ referrals, which, in my opinion, were due to unstable income due to zero-hour contracts, or part-time low-paid work. York’s tourism industry means that this is common – lots of work is in hospitality, hotels, bars etc. In a city which is fairly expensive to live in, low paid work just doesn’t make the ends meet.

Recent research by York CAB shows that people on zero-hours contracts are being forced to take out payday loans. Here begins a spiral of debt that people can’t get out of. These are people struggling to get by day-to-day anyway, and then all it takes is a small crisis to happen and you find yourself tipped over the edge. Being hit by the removal of the spare room subsidy or ‘bedroom tax’, a sanction or an unexpected bill when you don’t have a safety net can be enough to stop you being able to afford food, meaning that you need a foodbank to be able to feed the family.

It’s stark to think of people going hungry in your own city, but this is the reality: people going hungry behind closed doors, often too ashamed to ask for help. We know it’s hard for many people to come and accept support from a foodbank, which is why we try to make our foodbank as welcoming a place as possible. A place where we don’t just give out food but listen, without judgement, and help resolve the cause of the crisis too.

York is a city of two halves; we have a lot of wealth here alongside a real need. There are a lot of really generous people here who make what we do possible – and we are incredibly grateful, but we need to create a society where nobody needs a foodbank. And this is going to mean standing together with people in poverty, acknowledging that this problem is real and then working together to find a lasting solution to hunger here in York and across the UK.

Laura Chalmers, York Foodbank Manager

This piece was originally published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk on 18 November 2015.