Hungry in Cameron's Cotswolds: Beyond the 4x4s and classy shops of the PM's own constituency, a food bank is alarmingly busy

In affluent Witney, volunteers are busy preparing Christmas parcels to combat the town's 'grinding poverty'

Witney isn't the sort of place you associate with poverty, homelessness and hunger. That's because it's an affluent market town in the heart of the Cotswolds.

The high street smacks of well-heeled middle England, with high-end boutiques and estate agents offering "substantial" farmhouses in the nearby countryside. There's even a sign outside the butcher advertising "plucked and whole pheasants".

Just five minutes away from this scene of shiny Range Rovers and rural affluence, though, is something that many Witney residents might have hoped was consigned to an earlier age or an area of inner-city deprivation – a busy food bank.

Jo Cypher, a local mother, set up Oxfordshire West Food Bank last April. She is used to visitors remarking on the juxtaposition of Witney's wealth and the "grinding poverty" of the people the food bank supports, especially because the town's Member of Parliament is Prime Minister David Cameron.

Last week, the rise in food bank use was noisily debated in Parliament, but at Elim Church in Witney, where Ms Cypher and her volunteers borrow a room for their supplies, they were busy preparing Christmas parcels with festive treats. "You'd be surprised at how much poverty there is here," she said. "People from outside the area are always shocked, but the poverty here is hidden by the wealth that surrounds it."

The food bank provides dozens of parcels each week after formal referrals from organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Job Centre. Ms Cypher said: "In 2013, we shouldn't have to be here, but life is harder. Bills are going up; food is more expensive and it's easier than ever before to get into debt."

A church campaign highlighting problems caused by the cuts A church campaign highlighting problems caused by the cuts  

According to Ms Cypher, who says she set the bank up after struggling herself in the last recession, Oxfordshire West Food Bank relies entirely on donations and counts the local Women's Institute, the town's Freemasons, local firms and a nearby Waitrose store among its biggest and most generous donors.

This town's refined tastes can cause problems, though, explained volunteer Celia Angel as she unpacked a pack of Moroccan preserved lemons donated by one kindly benefactor. "We do get some odd donations of rather luxurious foods," said the former council housing officer. "We've had everything from pitted olives and vichyssoise to German bread from Waitrose."

David Cameron visited the site earlier this year, but to the dismay of campaigners didn't meet any of its users. Ms Cypher doesn't want to discuss the Prime Minister's visit, but she clearly isn't a fan. "I'm not very impressed with what he said when he visited or what he does," she said, shaking her head as she moved hefty boxes of baked beans.

Ms Angel, who gave up her job with the council to look after her disabled son and now volunteers one day a week, is more damming. "We are a rich nation and I don't understand how we've got to this situation where people rely on food banks," she said. "You can see the impact of the cuts in welfare here and the lack of employment. And once you have been marginalised by losing your job or your home, it's very hard to get back to normality. Most of our users are having problems with their benefits."

That was the case for Louise Andrews, 26, who used the bank when she had problems with her Jobseeker's Allowance and is now a volunteer. "Jo was so kind-hearted to start this food bank," she said. "I had nowhere else to turn when I was referred here by the Citizens Advice Bureau in town."

None of Witney's Conservative councillors would be interviewed for this story, but Duncan Enright, a Labour councillor from Witney who is standing against David Cameron in the next election, said there is "real poverty" in the town and accused the local authority of taking a "very minimal view of its responsibilities".

Ms Cypher and her volunteers aren't alone in Witney. Next month, another food bank is set to open six miles away in Carterton. Lynn Little is the town's mayor and a local Conservative councillor. She told the Oxford Mail that she took the decision to open one in the town because so many people use the facility in Witney. She declined to discuss it with The Independent on Sunday.

Back in Witney, the Rev Gavin Woan at Elim Christian Fellowship, will run a free meal service when the food bank moves to a new home in the town in the new year. It is to feed those who "in need, homeless, and desperately lonely".

That desperation is national, according to Chris Mould, the executive chairman of the Trussell Trust, a charity that has 30,000 volunteers working across its national network of 400 banks.

"It's vital that the stories of individuals using food banks are listened to by politicians, because they give us a picture of the increasingly precarious nature of life for a growing number of people," he said. "This isn't a mystery. We know what has happened to medium incomes – they've stagnated – and we know how much the cost of living has soared. It stands to reason that there are going to be very large numbers of people who can't make ends meet."

The demand for food aid is growing rapidly, according to the organisation, and so far this year the trust has helped 500,000 people with food parcels, compared with 346,992 last year. Church Action Against Poverty has launched a national Britain Isn't Eating campaign after its research found that half a million people were reliant on food aid. Meanwhile, the charity Barnardo's has reported a 94 per cent increase in the demand for food aid from the people it helps.

The situation is so grave that some doctors have called it "a public health emergency", and earlier this month – for the first time since the Second World War – the Red Cross assisted in the gathering and distributing of food parcels in the UK.

Mr Mould says the Trussell Trust isn't a political organisation, but he hears that many of its volunteers see the welfare system as "increasingly appearing inhuman" and are "distressed and puzzled" by number of people "who are clearly unwell and have been deemed fit for work".

He said: "I'm glad David Cameron visited his local food bank in Witney, but that's just one independent location and he's declined the invitation to visit one of our 400 food banks. That invitation is still open."

A spokesman for No 10 declined to comment on Mr Mould's repeated invitation but said: "The Prime Minister has praised the food bank movement for their excellent work and visited one in his constituency earlier this year... The Prime Minister believes it's better to do the right thing rather than something that looks good."

For Jack Monroe, an anti-poverty campaigner and food writer, that's not good enough. "Some of his MPs are perfectly happy to pose cutting ribbons at new food banks," said Ms Monroe, who blogged about her experience using a food bank before forging a career as a food blogger and campaigner.

Speaking after the parliamentary debate on the rise of food banks, which in part came about after she gained more than 140,000 signatures to a petition, she added: "By avoiding hearing the harrowing stories from food bank users, the Government can continue to talk about words like deficit reduction and doesn't have to talk about words like, pain, hunger and starving parents."

Retail to the rescue?


Sainsbury's is perhaps the most established food bank supporter. It has supported the FoodCycle scheme since its inception in 2009, and in 1994 helped to found FareShare, one of the biggest providers of donations to food bank charities.


Tesco worked with the Trussell Trust on a nationwide food collection drive to which it made an additional corporate donation. Some of its stores have donation boxes.


Asda works with a number of food banks, including the Trussell Trust, as well FareShare. It says it also lets local charities use its stores as donation collection points.


Morrison's in-store Community Champions work with FoodCycle to distribute food at a local level. Works with charities FareShare, His Church, and Company Shop which help to distribute unsold food.

Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer donates food at a company-wide level to FareShare, but doesn't work with food banks.

The Co-Op

Many Co-Op stores support local food banks on an ad hoc basis, while the head office has donated 113 tons of food to FareShare this year.


Another FareShare partner, which was also the first to join "Feed the 5,000" to support food banks. Last month, all Waitrose stores invited a local food bank to carry out collections in-store.

Harry Davies

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment

First full-length look is finally here

Arts and Entertainment
Stanley Tucci as DCI Eugene Morton, Sophie Grabol as Hildur Odegard and Christopher Eccleston as Professor Charlie Stoddart in 'Fortitude'
tvGrace Dent: Still, it's compelling and cinematically sublime

Rap music mogul accused of running two men over in his truck

Arts and Entertainment
EastEnders actor Danny Dyer has been rejected from Game of Thrones three times
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Turner performing at 93 Feet East
musicReview: 93 Feet East, London
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

A mother and her child
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Tax now accounts for ‘nearly 80%’ of the price of a bottle of whisky

Arts and Entertainment
Peppa Pig wearing her golden boots

"Oink! Oink! Hee hee hee!" First interview with the big-screen star

Life and Style

Biohacking group hopes technology will lead people to think about even more dystopian uses

2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Continuous Improvement Manager

£41500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Data Entry Administrator

£10670 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Gas Installation Manager - South East England

£36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Gas Installation Manager is r...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service and Breakdown Engineer - South East

£29000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Service and Brea...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee