The Red Cross will this winter start collecting and distributing food aid to the needy in Britain for the first time since the Second World War, as welfare cuts and the economic downturn send soaring numbers of people to soup kitchens and food banks across Europe.
In what could be the start of an increased role in Britain for the Geneva-based charity best known for its work in disaster zones, its volunteers will be mobilised to go into supermarkets across the country at the end of November and ask shoppers to donate dry goods. The British Red Cross will then help FareShare, a charity working with the Trussell Trust and Tesco, distribute the packets and tins to food banks nationwide.
Britain is just one of many countries where families are struggling to put food on the table. In a report released today into the devastating humanitarian impact of Europe’s financial crisis, the Red Cross recorded a 75 per cent increase in the number of people relying on their food aid over the last three years. At least 43 million people across the Continent are not getting enough to eat each day and 120 million are at risk of poverty.
Red Cross officials called on European governments to try and find new ways to address to the crisis, as austerity programmes plunge millions into poverty and hunger.
“While we fully understand that governments need to save money, we strongly advise against indiscriminate cuts in public health and social welfare, as it may cost more in the long run,” said Bekele Geleta, the Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross.
In May charities revealed that more than half a million Britons are now turning to food banks, with that number expected to have increased over the summer. Many charities and opposition politicians say government cuts to welfare have made the situation worse, with families struggling to make ends meet with the rising prices, the economic downturn and a benefits squeeze.
Some senior Tories have dismissed the problem, with Lord Freud claiming in June that families using food banks were simply after free meals, while Education Secretary Michael Gove said last month that users were often those who could not manage their finances properly.
With winter approaching and fuel bills expected to rise, charities are struggling to meet the demand, and FareShare asked the Red Cross to step in. Juliet Mountford, the Red Cross head of UK Service Development, said they agreed to assist FareShare on the basis of “strong evidence of an increased need for support on food poverty issues”.
“For British Red Cross it’s a toe in the water,” she said. “It’s the first step in considering whether we ought to be doing more on today’s food poverty challenge.”
FareShare’s CEO, Linsday Boswell, said that in the past year the number of charities they were assisting had risen from 720 to 910. “We need to be able to operate differently to be able to front up to a crisis like this,” he said.
While the Red Cross has in the past provided food to refugees and also to victims of the flooding in Cumbria in 2009, it would be the first time it has helped with the nationwide collection and distribution of food aid since the end of the Second World War.
Chris Johnes, the UK poverty director for Oxfam, said he was “genuinely shocked” that the situation had got so dire that the Red Cross needed to step in. “They don’t do things for reasons of grandstanding at all,” he told The Independent. “The fact that they are doing this... is a very clear signal how serious things have become.”
Mr Johnes said that reduced child support and benefits and the introduction of the controversial “bedroom tax” were making the situation worse. “We’ve actually got the government reducing the amount of income going into the pockets of a number of people and that is leading to in even greater use of food banks,” he said.
Maria Eagle MP, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “This warning... about the growing number of families facing a lack of nutritious food in Britain should be a wake-up-call to David Cameron over his failure to tackle the cost of living crisis.”
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said there was “no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks” and said the Government would be supporting vulnerable groups with cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance.
Red alert: How austerity is hurting Europe
From the Red Cross report:
After two bailouts, Greece has the most stringent austerity programme in the eurozone. This is having a devastating impact on health and well-being, the Red Cross says; the suicide rate among women has doubled since the start of the crisis.
Austerity cuts are causing soaring unemployment in Spain, where a quarter of young people are now out of work. The Red Cross said unemployment in Europe was “a ticking time bomb” increasing the risk of social unrest and upheaval.
Migrants from all over the world who move to Europe for jobs get no social support. The report tells the story of Meerby from Kyrgyzstan, who went to Russia to work but ran out of money and was offered $3,000 to sell her newborn baby. She refused and fled.
Up to 150,000 small businesses have closed, sending homelessness soaring. Some 50,000 people in Milan alone are receiving food aid. The Red Cross tells how Maurizio, whose business went bust, now lives in the camper van which was once his holiday home.
Human trafficking is also rising because of the crisis, the report says, as more people are desperate to move to places where they can earn more money. Moldovans pay up to €3,800 (£3,200) to be smuggled to another country, putting women and children at risk of exploitation.
Even in the richest nation in the EU, with a per capita income of about £67,000, the Red Cross is running a programme providing food to the needy. France, meanwhile, has seen 350,000 people fall below the poverty line from 2008 to 2011.