…and you gave me something to eat.
There are now 2,030 food banks across the UK – that’s more than we have McDonald’s outlets. How is it that, in today’s Britain, the world’s 5th largest economy, people need to go to food banks to feed themselves and their families?
There is no doubt that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people experiencing hunger and visiting food banks in recent years. The Trussell Trust is the UK’s largest emergency food aid provider, running two thirds of those 2,030 food banks across the country. It reports a 73% increase over the last 5 years in the number of food parcels it has provided to people in crisis. The Trust’s latest research, carried out over 3 years, shows that people who come to a food bank have an average weekly income after housing costs of just £50 – that’s £7.14 a day. Nearly 75% of them have at least one physical or mental health issue and over two thirds say they have problems with the benefit system. 70% reported at least one challenging life experience in the last year, for example homelessness, relationship breakdown or addiction.
The new prevalence of food banks has forced the issue of food poverty into the media limelight and up the political agenda. It is frequently cited by journalists and campaigners as proof of the failure of Universal Credit. At the same time, food banks have been criticised as an undignified short-term solution which could be making the problem worse by fostering reliance on food charity. Others view them as a source of hand-outs to people who are out to get what they can for free.
BCM’s food bank, called ‘Basics for Life’, at the Resource Centre was established 30 years ago and is one of the UK’s 800+ independent food aid providers. I asked its Manager, Chris Fisher, to answer these questions and untangle the different viewpoints. Why do people come to the food bank? Does it really work? He said:
‘There is no single reason why people come to the food bank – the circumstances they are facing are many and varied. Some find themselves in financial trouble and that is sometimes through their own fault, making irresponsible choices. But we also see many for whom Universal Credit is really not working, as well as people in work on the national living wage which is not keeping up with the rise in the cost of living. People come for help from all walks of life. Some just seem to get stuck in the poverty trap, unable to change things. Some are facing situations beyond their control, like job loss or family members passing away, and they can’t cope. Some have mental health issues and don’t know that help is available or where to go for it.
We give out food parcels to people who are referred to us by housing associations, support workers, hospitals, churches, probation, Citizens Advice and Job Centres, which helps protect the system from abuse. We don’t pass any judgement on those who come in, we just try to help. We know that what we can do isn’t going to solve all their problems, but it can make life a little easier for them at that time.
Sometimes people come in who simply don’t see anyone else, and we are able to offer them love and friendship as well as give them food. We try to be a caring place where people know they will be shown respect along with as much practical help as we can give. That friendship and support may perhaps mean they are less likely to need a food bank in the future.’
City Missionary, Anna Maria, shared the story of a young mother who came to the Resource Centre with her 2-year-old daughter at the beginning of January. They needed food and also furniture to furnish an empty flat recently given them by the city council.
‘This young woman showed me a letter from Women’s Aid that testified to her coming out of domestic abuse. We got talking and I wanted to give her some toys. As she was choosing, she said that she would need a good church, that she is alone but believes in the Lord – he kept her going. I offered to pray and she was in tears. She went home that day with hope. I gave her a gospel and told her that I will get her a bible.
A few days later I visited her in her new flat. We spent time together and I got to know her better. I brought her the bible and we talked about what she was reading in the gospel. I could tell that the Lord was working in her life.
We went to church together and she was so happy. The pastor was very helpful. I felt that there she would have a family that takes care of her. Beautiful to witness that. I am grateful for being a part of her story. Thank you, Jesus.’