As the cold bites, foodbanks give hope

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‘It’s a suitably chilly morning to usher in Fuel Poverty Awareness Day 2016; a day primarily designed for those of us (like me) whose central heating clicked on unthinkingly at 6am to ensure the rush to work and school took place in glowing warmth, with plentiful hot water for showers and enough gas and electricity to cook scrambled eggs on toast for five. How lovely.

Others, of course, don’t need their awareness raised at all. They are among the 4.5million people in the UK who the government says are ‘fuel poor’, who most likely woke up in the cold, got dressed in the cold, and will later go to bed in the cold.’

That’s how Wandsworth foodbank trustee Sarah Chapman opens her New Statesman blog today. She continues;

In technical terms, fuel poverty refers to people ‘who live on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost’. These are our neighbours whose stark choice today is to ‘heat or eat’ – or worse, those who will struggle to do either.

It’s no surprise that food poverty and fuel poverty are close friends; two spokes in the wheel of wider deprivation, or adjacent seats on the rollercoaster that’s life on a low/no income. We see this every day at our foodbank centres across Wandsworth. If you haven’t got money for food, you’re unlikely to have enough to ‘burn on gas’, as one guest, a security guard, told me.

The experiences Sarah talks about are mirrored at Trussell Trust foodbanks across the country.

In the Wirral, Maria used the foodbank after her first paycheque from her new job was delayed for six weeks. It’s perhaps no surprise that six weeks with no money also meant no food and no heating.

Fortunately she lives near Wirral foodbank, which was one of the first foodbanks to pilot the npower fuelbanks. The fuelbank provides people in crisis with a £49 voucher to top up prepayment meters. There are now npower fuelbanks operating in 48 Trussell Trust foodbank centres across the country. She said:

“I had no money at all and couldn’t afford to put the gas on. Eventually after asking around and getting a bit desperate I asked at the One Stop and they referred me to Wirral Food bank. The foodbank helped me with a food parcel and the fuel voucher also meant I could make sure I could top up my gas and electric.”

Richard Roberts, the manager of Wirral Foodbank, said he can really see the impact of the fuelbank;

‘If you have food but cannot afford to cook it, what’s the point – so often food and fuel poverty go hand in hand. One of our Foodbank centres reported that a few days after Christmas (2015) a number of people came to them asked if they had any candles; they had spent Christmas with no heating or lighting. The introduction of the fuelbank is “bringing to light” the fuel poverty that many people in our communities are facing.’

Meanwhile, at Hammersmith and Fulham foodbank, Gavin got into debt when he could not pay his water bill because he had to pay his gas bill. He told us how cold his flat was. He is very thin, and has eating disorders as well as a rare bone disease which means he can get hypothermia easily. He needs to have the heating on all the time, but he can’t afford it.

Like many on low incomes, he doesn’t get any extra money in winter compensate for the additional costs it brings. So he is cold, and has to grin and bear it.

But emergency food combined with help from the foodbank’s in-house CAB adviser meant that Gavin is now on his way to paying off his debts and getting back on his feet.

Foodbanks across the UK are finding innovative ways to provide More Than Food to people in crisis, and to broaden the support they provide. More and more foodbanks run clothes banks, offering free clothing to people at foodbanks.

In Brent Foodbank, this scheme started because foodbank manager Michele noticed that foodbank clients were coming in and staying in the centres as long as possible just to be able to keep warm. So she started giving out winter coats as well as food.

The impact of food and fuel poverty is far-reaching, as Sarah Chapman’s insightful blog tell us:
‘Guests at our foodbank centres speak of bone-chilling cold, of wearing winter coats day and night indoors, of huddling together to eke out the last few pence of pre-payment meter electricity: “We don’t often put the heating on, but when we do we just put one heater on, and one light on at a time, and we all stay in the same room. We keep putting more clothes on to keep warm.”

Others ask for food that doesn’t need to be heated, or that can be cooked on a Calor gas heater. Trussell Trust foodbanks across the UK pack ‘kettle boxes’ – food that needs hot water alone to come to life.

By-products of fuel poverty – damp and mould – are recurrent themes, both in private rented accommodation as well as some social housing. One council tenant showed us how she kept the family’s foodbank food in plastic bags out on their tower block balcony: it lasted longer there than in their damp kitchen where mould quickly spread.

Unsurprisingly, the health impacts of fuel poverty and cold homes are stark: respiratory problems are more than twice as likely in children living in cold homes compared to those living in warm homes; cold housing has a negative impact on mental health in all age groups; cold homes exacerbate existing conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis.

Children’s emotional well-being, resilience and educational attainment may also be negatively affected by cold housing – worrying when you consider that lone parent households are consistently more likely to be in fuel poverty (one in four of all lone parent families, according to government statistics ).’

Wandsworth foodbank is partnering with a local charity called fuelbanks and families, which works in six foodbank centres in London to provide an immediate £49 grant directly onto gas and electricity pre-payment meters.

Sarah told us that this link up makes a real and vital difference to the people we support. As one mum helped by fuelbanks and families said: “It’s not always long-term help you need, sometimes it’s just that little bit of help where you can just turn things round again. My boys, they’ve got heating, they had the food, they had the warmth, they had the hot water – and a bit of a less stressed mum.”

We here at the Trussell Trust are always so inspired by foodbanks and the creative ways they tackle poverty in the UK. Fuel poverty is all too often an issue that’s under the radar. But it is all too real and that’s why foodbanks across the UK are finding ways to help ensure that people are not forced to be cold, or go hungry.