In recent years, food banks have become a vital safety net to the growing number of people failed by a threadbare welfare system. City Hall’s recently-conducted Survey of Londoners found that 400,000 children and around one in five adults in the capital have low or very low food security. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, food banks were working at capacity in their efforts to grapple with the fallout of a decade of government-imposed austerity.
The Trussell Trust’s latest full year stats showed a 24 per cent rise in the number of three-day emergency food parcels handed out to Londoners between April 2018 and March 2019. The Trust identified the most common reasons for visiting a food bank as insufficient income and difficulties with benefits. Food insecurity is a complex and multi-faceted issue, so there is a mosaic of other factors that may lead to reliance upon emergency food provision, ranging from homelessness, to the accumulation of rent arrears to relationship breakdowns.
In the current pandemic, many vulnerable people who were already precariously hovering above the breadline are facing a whole new set of challenging circumstances, which could plunge them into longer-term food insecurity. Despite the chancellor’s measures to mitigate the worst impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak on the economy, some sections of society are falling through the gaps. A woman on a recent BBC Newsnight piece about self-employed people turning up at food banks said: “I drop donations to food banks all the time. I can’t believe that I’m here needing help”.
Without doubt, many more will be forced to do the same as the economy grinds to a halt. And just as demand is increasing, provision is drying up. North Paddington food bank has recently reported losing a quarter of its usual donations. Sadly, this is a trend being replicated across the capital, particularly in some of the most deprived boroughs.
Some food banks have been forced to reduce opening hours and some have suspended services altogether. Many food bank volunteers are from one of the main demographics who have been asked to self-isolate: the over- 70s. Rajesh Makwana, Director of the Sufra food bank for refugees and asylum seekers recently remarked, “This really is the perfect storm.”
Another thing to consider is how people access food banks and the referral process itself. This is usually through a charity, their local authority or MP, or someone like a GP or social worker. Obviously, in the current lockdown situation, contacting any of these services is more difficult than at normal times.
There is good news that help has been forthcoming from national supermarket chains. Morrisons have promised to distribute £10 million-worth of food to food banks during the pandemic, extending production by an hour a day for this purpose. They have also lifted the restriction of two like-items per customer, in the hope that donations will increase as a result. Tesco are giving groceries worth £15 million to FareShare and the Trussell Trust to distribute to community groups and food banks, as well as sharing £1 million between the two organisations to support their continuing operations. Meanwhile, the Co-op is donating £1.5 milion worth of food to FareShare and Lidl is donating fruit and vegetable bags to NHS staff.
Another positive is that the government has identified staff at food banks as key workers as they are “caring for the vulnerable”, freeing up people to volunteer. The Mayor and many other politicians and public figures have amplified the call to help food banks through these extraordinarily difficult times.
As Londoners, we can respond to these calls. We can volunteer our time (where absolutely safe to do so) to help with the processing and distribution of food parcels. We can safely drop off donations of items such as cereal, soup, pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes, meat and vegetables, lentils, beans and pulses, tinned fruit, biscuits, UHT milk, fruit juices, toiletries and feminine hygiene products. For those self-isolating or unable to physically volunteer, food banks are also in desperate need of monetary donations, which in most cases can be made online.
However, the generosity of individual Londoners alone, will not be enough. We need to see more urgent and robust interventions from the government. With a staggering 950,000 new claims for universal credit made in the last fortnight, it must remove the five-week waiting period for initial payments. We must also see an end to the benefit freeze and the two-child cap. These measures, which charities have long been calling for, could lift thousands out of poverty and destitution.
It is the very least the government could do in these circumstances, especially considering that over the last ten years they have largely outsourced their duty of care of the most vulnerable in our society to an overburdened charity and third sector. It is time to bail out a very different type of bank.