More than half a million Britons have resorted to using food banks to stave off hunger and destitution, the Government has been warned.
Major charities signalled their alarm over a dramatic rise in the nation's "hidden hungry" – families who are forced to ask for help to feed themselves – because of wage cuts, the squeeze on benefits and the continuing economic downturn. The numbers have trebled in the past year alone and are likely to continue rising rapidly despite Britain's status as one of the world's wealthiest nations, according to a joint report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty.
They say cuts to welfare payments – including below-inflation rises in benefits, new Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions and reassessment of entitlement to invalidity benefits – are the biggest cause of the surge in demand for food banks in all parts of the country. The charities are also fiercely critical of the numbers of mistakes and delays in benefits payments, which leave claimants without cash through no fault of their own and lead to "food uncertainty" among Britain's poorest families.
The hunger crisis has been exacerbated by the falling living standards of many people in employment, who have seen their wages trimmed or their working hours cut. Rising food and fuel prices are also driving families into poverty, the charities add.
The cost of basic foodstuffs has leapt by 35 per cent and the cost of heating a home has jumped by 63 per cent in the past five years – a period in which many incomes have risen only marginally or not at all.
Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam, said last night: "The shocking reality is that hundreds of thousands of of people in the UK are turning to food aid. Cuts to social safety-nets have gone too far, leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale. It is unacceptable this is happening in the seventh wealthiest nation on the planet."
The Trussell Trust, the biggest organiser of food banks in Britain, said almost 350,000 people received at least three days' emergency food last year, compared with about 130,000 in 2011-12. But because there is an array of organisations distributing food, the new report conservatively estimates that well over 500,000 people are now relying on charity handouts.
Niall Cooper, the chief executive of Church Action on Poverty, said: "The safety net that was there to protect people is being eroded to such an extent that we are seeing a rise in hunger. Food banks are not designed to, and should not, replace the 'normal' safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support."
The Government has sent out mixed messages over the steep rise in food bank use. While Downing Street sources had previously said welfare payments were set at a level "where people can afford to eat", David Cameron has acknowledged the work of food-bank volunteers as "part of the big society".
The Prime Minister visited the independent Oxfordshire West Food Bank in his Witney constituency in February, but did so without inviting photographers or journalists, and has so far failed to take up the Trussell Trust's invitation to visit one of its more established centres. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has joined a Food Aware appeal for food donations, visited the Witney food bank and raised the issue at Prime Minister's Questions.
Earlier this month, Tim Lang, a former adviser to the World Health Organisation and one of Britain's leading food policy experts, told The Independent that he feared food banks were becoming "institutionalised" and taking Britain back to a "Dickensian" model of welfare. The Trussell Trust launched a nationwide network of food distribution centres in 2004. It feeds people referred to it by social services and other professionals such as school liaison officers, doctors or Job Centre Plus staff. It now runs 350 food banks in all areas of Britain, manned by an estimated 30,000 volunteers, with an average of three new centres opening each week.
Its chief executive, Chris Mould, said yesterday: "We are seeing massive growth in the numbers of people being referred to us. Low income is a serious problem across the UK, with people facing acute challenges in trying to survive. Increases in basic prices of food and heating your home have a really big impact on people's ability to cope."
Today's report calls for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into the relationship between benefit payment delays, errors or sanctions, welfare reforms and the growth in the numbers of "hidden hungry".
It is also damning about ministers' failure properly to monitor the problem, and calls for agencies to record and monitor people experiencing food poverty in order to establish more accurate numbers.
Imran Hussain, the head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "It is a national scandal that half a million British people are now having to turn to food aid. It is a problem that has quickly escalated and shows that something has gone badly wrong with the safety net that is supposed to help families in need."
Case studies: Living on the breadline
Retired postman, 57, from Stockwell, South London
I worked for my last company for two decades but had a nervous breakdown. I received a good pension of £95 a week, which meant I wasn't entitled to any benefits. Unfortunately, I had a problem with alcohol and this swallowed up all my money for a period of time. I first went to the Brixton food bank in May 2012. I'd got myself into a bit of a mess and it was the last resort for me: I literally didn't have a can of beans in the cupboard. I saw a sign in a shop window and was referred by Ace of Clubs, a soup kitchen and social centre in Clapham North. They do lunch for a quid – with dessert! I went three times, which was the most I was allowed with the vouchers I was given. They are very well stocked but I was surprised by how hard it was to have vouchers issued. They have helped me a few times and, now that I am over my crisis, I volunteer there. They are a great organisation and all the staff are very dedicated to what they do. People shouldn't feel shame in using them when they need to, but unfortunately there is stigma attached."
Unemployed mother of one, 47, from south London
My daughter starts school in September. I went to a food bank because I couldn't afford to put food on the table for her. I receive Jobseekers' Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit but it is all swallowed by gas and electric bills, and by a loan I took out three years ago to pay for Christmas. Extra things need paying for – a missed bill, new shoes for my daughter – and then you can't afford food. I saw the food bank advertised and went in to ask how it could be used. I was then referred by a community centre. I had to provide proof of income. I didn't want to have to depend on charity – but it's either that or nothing."
Retired civil servant, 57, from West Croydon
I was at the Ministry of Defence for 20 years. I'm now unemployed but not old enough for a pension. When the council changed benefit payments on 1 April, I had no money for food. I complained to the council and they suggested a food bank. I have no family and don't want my friends to know about my situation, so had no where else to turn."