The recent survey conducted by Leeds Justice and Peace Commission uncovered the huge scale of food poverty, with the Catholic Church at the forefront of the fight to feed people.
The survey found that more than 50% of the 88 parishes in the Leeds diocese were actively involved in feeding people. There is also much church involvement with a number of foodbanks in the Hallam diocese, covering South Yorkshire.
The Leeds diocese though would seem to be just a microcosm of what is going on in terms of the Catholic Church confronting food poverty across Britain.
Take the Archdiocese of Birmingham, where there are foodbanks operating out of 60 churches in 223 parishes.
At the Manchester Catholic chaplaincy foodbank, they are finding that the implementation of benefit sanctions are one reason why more people are coming to the foodbank. “It seems that a dislocation from the family unit leads them with nowhere to turn to,” said Father Tim Byron SJ, chaplain and chair of trustees at the foodbank. “We also see that many, perhaps not surprisingly, are suffering from mental health issues (temporarily or more long term it is difficult to assess). This means that they vulnerable when it comes to engaging with bureaucracy and perhaps don't have the resilience to follow some of the endless procedures they are confronted with. They can be penalised for being for a few minutes late for an interview or for not making enough job applications in a week (this can be an unreasonable number).”
The Manchester foodbank has also seen an increase in the numbers of students actually coming for food. The vouchers are given out by the advice centres in the student unions at the Univerisy of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. There has been a particular problem with students on professional courses for things like nursing, which have placements and so cannot hold down a part time job to help make ends meet. “They can’t get by without supplementing their income,” said Father Byron.
On the south coast, the Catholic churches support the local foodbank in Eastbourne. More than 20,000 people have visited the foodbank since it opened in June 2011.
One of the most startling findings of the Leeds research was that the Church backed network, the Trussell Trust, only represent part of the food poverty picture. “Half of those responding had provided food to the Trussell Trust foodbank but half as many again give food through the SVP,” says the report. Caritas Social Action Network confirm that the Trussell Trust only account for around half of all foodbanks. A research project conducted by the CSAN last year found that 21 CSAN members deliver food programmes, had cooked 153,465 meals in 27 separate food projects
The Trussell Trust reports that in 2010, there were 54 foodbanks, today the number has increased to 423. Some 41,000 people went to foodbanks n 2009/10, compared to 913,000 being given three days emergency food and support last year (330,000 were children). Some 8,318 tonnes of food was donated by the public in last 12 months. 30,000 people have volunteered at foodbanks over the past year. 27,000 frontline care professionals such as doctors or care workers have vouchers to issue for foodbanks.
The Trussell Trust statistics show that 45% of food bank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions and 22% cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis. “Substantial numbers are needing help because of problems with the social security system but what's new is that we're also seeing a marked rise in numbers of people coming to us with 'low income' as the primary cause of their crisis," said David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust. “Incomes for the poorest have not been increasing in line with inflation and many, whether in low paid work or on welfare, are not yet seeing the benefits of economic recovery. Instead, they are living on a financial knife edge where one small change in circumstances or a ‘life shock’ can force them into a crisis where they cannot afford to eat.”
Liz Firth, the development worker at the church charity Wellsprings Togethr in Bradford, says that there has been a massive increase in food poverty over the past 18 months. “We are trying to map existing provision, get a sense of why people are needing food, ensure the food projects have the means they need to provide their service. We'd love to move the debate on from food banks and to look more to seeing food banks as a necessary evil but not as a long-term solution. It's a tricky balance to appreciate and value the service provided and the efforts of those involved but there is no dignity in asking for food,” said Ms Firth. “I worry that in Bradford we're still seeing those in need as people worthy of help because we're Christians and we want to respond in love but we're not really questioning why they are in that situation or if we are we're blaming them rather than the system.”
Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, is concerned that foodbanks and food aid become institutionalised, as has happened in Canada. They were introduced in Canada in the early 1980s in what was perceived as a tough economic time. There are now 700 foodbanks, providing help to 800,000 people. The number has increased by nearly 100,000 over the past six years – as the country has come out of economic recession. There have been an abundance of low income jobs created as part of the economic recovery. “Churches have done a fantastic job recently to meet the need but we want to avoid what happened in the States and Canada, where foodbanks were introduced as a stop gap and are still going strong today,” said Mr Cooper. “The question is where we need to go to get to a position where we don’t need foodbanks.”
A report, Feeding Britain, compiled by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, at the end of last year, makes recommendations concerning changes to the benefits system, to stop delays and the implementation of the living wage to counter low pay. It’s third recommendation was to create a new generation of “super” food banks. The new foodbanks would combine food aid with welfare advice and advocacy. This network of foodbanks would bring together the existing players with supermarkets and the state.
Chris Mould. Chief executive of Trussell Trust, is disappointed that “the government has not responded in any practical way” to the 77 recommendations made in Feeding Britain.
Mr Mould is happy to see the function of foodbanks expand, so that they offer things like debt, benefits and budgets advice. He does not though want to see local authorities or government taking over foodbanks as such. “When asked, the churches across the country have stepped up to help neighbours in trouble,” said Mr Mould, who stresses foodbanks are support not a substitute for public services. “I do not believe that access to basic help should be discretionary. A modern wealthy country like the UK should have public (welfare) services available – we are not a substitute for the welfare state."Former Leeds West MP, John Battle, believes that the real issue is low pay, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. “This cannot be allowed to go on, with the poor effectively being left to pick up the scraps from the rich man’s table,” said Mr Battle, who insisted that the implementation of a living wage and maintaining of the welfare state is the direction in which things should be heading