Today’s Feeding Britain 2015-16 report by a cross-party group of MPs, led by the impressive Frank Field, highlights the ‘tragedy’ that there are still people across our country going hungry.
Really, just stop and think about that for a moment. There are people in our country, in your town, hey, maybe even in your street, going hungry today. Do you believe it’s true? Do you wonder how it’s possible?
Now imagine your fridge and cupboards are empty because you’ve eked out the last food until today, when you’re paid. Your youngest child had the last slice of bread and your oldest the last bowl of cereal this morning before school, but it’s okay because later today you’ll go to the cashpoint to get money for a food shop and you’ll come home and cook.
Except it isn’t okay, because you get to the cashpoint and it spits back your card and tells you there’s no money, and you try it again, and again, and you think ‘that can’t be right’. But it is, and you have precisely no money to buy the food you need because an administrative error at a DWP office means your benefit payment (that everyone has agreed you’re eligible for) just hasn’t arrived when it was supposed to.
You find a number, you call and after spending too much precious phone credit waiting on hold, you’re finally through to someone. But they tell you unfortunately the money won’t be there until Wednesday and there’s nothing they can do about it, and suddenly you’re faced with a cashless, foodless weekend with two hungry, growing children and no friends or family to help.
How do you feel? What are you going to do next?
For many people, the next step is into the foodbank. And it’s not an easy step, particularly for parents who are devastated they ‘can’t provide’ for their children. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to comfort a mum or a dad with the words ‘But you are providing for your children, even if it’s not in the way you would choose to’.
Today’s Feeding Britain report rightly highlights the truth that benefit delays, sanctions and changes (where one benefit stops before a new one is started, leaving a gap of weeks or sometimes months) remain the biggest single driver of foodbank use in the UK: accounting for nearly half of the one million plus food parcels that Trussell Trust foodbanks gave in 2014-15.
In Wandsworth Borough, where I volunteer, it’s the same picture. Last year more than 40 per cent of those we helped across our five foodbank centres were referred in crisis because benefit delay, change or sanction left them without enough money to buy food.
And the overall numbers are getting worse not better: in Wandsworth we’ve helped 24 per cent more people in the first six months of this year compared to same six months of last year. This is considerably higher than the national Trussell Trust figure which reveals a welcome, smaller increase of 3 per cent in the same time – but possibly reflects the lethal cocktail of welfare reform (benefit cap, bedroom tax et al), high rent and poverty pay hitting residents of UK’s capital hardest.
But behind the stats are real people, like you and me.
In the last few days, I’ve talked to a single mum, one of whose young children is disabled, whose Child Tax Credit hasn’t been paid since September because of an ‘admin error’ – a sizeable chunk of the family’s low income suddenly not there, and meaning the difference between just managing and not managing at all. It was great to be able to refer her to our excellent Citizens Advice Foodbank advisor, a local partnership funded by City Bridge Trust, but less great when their entire hour’s appointment was spent in a queue trying to (unsuccessfully) speak to a Tax Credit advisor on the phone.
There’s an older gentleman I met yesterday, referred to us by Age UK, who was advised by the local Job Centre Plus to claim Employment Support Allowance as he is too ill to work. He applied, his Job Seeker’s Allowance was automatically stopped, and he is still waiting for the first payment of ESA three months’ later. Yes, that really does mean that he has had absolutely no money coming in for three months. It also means his Housing Benefit stopped, triggered by benefit change, and he is in arrears for the first time.
I asked him how he has managed until now: “It was OK for the first few weeks as luckily I had a few bits in my freezer. But now I’ve only got £7 in my bank account and they say it will be another two weeks til I might get paid, and so I had to come here.”
It is heart-breaking and frustrating in equal measure. Heart-breaking because of the stress and deprivation it brings to families and individuals; frustrating because it must be possible to do something to improve the delivery of benefits to people in the UK in 2015.
But it will only happen if our government listens to today’s Feeding Britain report, and to the many voices of people who are struggling, as well as the charities who are consistently flagging that something is not right. It must look honestly and forensically at the causes of UK hunger, and act swiftly and decisively to make changes that will stop people needing to turn in desperation to foodbanks to put food on the table. And it will only happen if everyone who cares holds them to their responsibility to do this.
Robert McAfee Brown, a 20th century theologian, said: “Who we listen to determines what we hear. Where we stand determines what we see. What we do determines who we become.”
Let’s hope and pray that those in power listen to the stories of the materially poor, the vulnerable, the sick, and so hear the reality of their situations; that they move near to stand with those of their electorate who are facing hunger, and so see the truth of life for those who are struggling.
Because what they do next determines who we become – as individuals, as families and as a nation.
Sarah Chapman, Wandsworth Foodbank volunteer & trustee
This piece was originally published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk on 10 December 2015.