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UK Politics

Feed thy neighbour: Charting the journey of a food-bank donation

George Osborne, take note: the number of needy people turning to just one charity is up 200 per cent

Putting food on the table has never been one of life's most straightforward tasks. Not that this may have occurred to George Osborne: the Chancellor's £134,565 salary means he is not one of the 500,000 or more people in Britain today who experience weeks at a time when they don't have enough money to buy food at a supermarket.

While the performance of the financial sort of bank may be uppermost in his thoughts, Mr Osborne candidly admitted in Parliament last week that he had never visited one of the food variety. His suggestion that a recent growth in food banks' popularity was because they are now advertised in job centres sparked accusations that ministers were out of touch.

Job losses, stagnating wages, inflation and government cuts to council services and basic welfare payments have created a new and unwelcome food economy. Needy people are increasingly relying not on the state, but on their neighbour, to put food on the table.

Often, that food has already travelled thousands of miles, from foreign plantation, to supermarket depot, to high-street shop. Today, more and more food goes one step further before reaching the table – to the food bank.

Taofik Osun, a father-of-three from Streatham, south London, and Wendy Thompson, a mother-of-two from Stockwell, live within five miles of one another. They have never met, but last week Taofik's children were eating biscuits and chocolate bars that a few days earlier had been in Wendy's shopping basket.

Wendy, a teacher, bought the food at a Sainsbury's superstore on Clapham High Street. "I collect food from friends and neighbours too," Wendy says. "The house has become a kind of trading post. I have to tell the children: don't touch that food, that's not for us!"

The chocolate bars and the biscuits – along with some tomato soup, fruit compote, semi-skimmed milk and other items – were taken to her local Trussell Trust food bank at St Paul's Church in Brixton. The charity has 350 food banks in its national network, and there are many more independent food banks throughout the UK.

Last week the trust revealed the growing extent of this burgeoning food chain when it announced it had helped 150,000 people in the three months from April – an increase of 200 per cent on the same three months last year. More than half of those helped admitted they turned to food banks because of problems with benefits.

The items in Wendy's basket are typical of the globalised food economy. The tomatoes came from Portugal; the fruit compote consisted of figs and apricots from Turkey; the raisins from California; and the cocoa that ended up as chocolate on a digestive biscuit was picked in West Africa.

Wendy's donations were sorted into a parcel by volunteers and given to Taofik as part of a three-day emergency food package that also includes rice, tinned vegetables and cereal.

Taofik, who was born in Nigeria, has lived in the UK for several years, holding a number of jobs including a stint as a cleaner for Hackney council. But the Home Office challenged his immigration status so he can neither work nor claim benefits.

Until this is ironed out, money will be extremely tight: "I was told by a friend about the local food bank. All the children are able to eat now, it's very good. Before, things were very bad."

Immigrants cast adrift by the welfare system make up a large number of food-bank users, but the most common reason someone needs to come to one are benefits delays or cuts.

Food-bank managers, such as Elizabeth Maytom, who manages the Brixton facility, have seen a surge in demand since changes to welfare payments came into effect in April. "I find it difficult to conceive of the fact that in 2013, in London, there is a huge cross-section of people living in poverty," she says. "There are things going on at a much higher level nationally that mean people are in this situation – but in the immediate term we can't let people go hungry."

Wendy agrees. "The cuts have all come at once and they have been so severe, people have been caught in the crossfire. Many people take the stereotypical view that people using food banks are scroungers. That kind of label is so demoralising."

Taofik and his family are grateful to people like Wendy, but food policy experts are beginning to ask whether, in a world where we have the ability to put on shelves food that was grown half a world away, people should have to depend on their neighbour to buy it for them. For example, Professor Tim Lang, a former adviser to the World Health Organization and the UK Government, believes that this return to a "Dickensian style" of welfare sets a dangerous precedent.

Adrian Curtis, the Trussell Trust's UK food-bank director, argues: "There will always be people who slip through the net. But ultimately we want to see less people needing food banks."

That means more jobs, fairer benefits, cheaper food and higher wages. With none of these things on the horizon, the strange new food chain of 21st-century Britain looks as if it's here to stay.