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Number of children relying on food banks more than doubles during lockdown, figures show

Parents say offspring skipping meals as charities call for emergency income support scheme to prevent people being ‘swept into poverty’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 01 May 2020 08:31 BST
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Michael Gove outlines government support for food banks

The number of children having to rely on food banks has more than doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, as charities warn the UK is “sweeping into an economic crisis” and ministers face calls for emergency measures to ensure families don’t go hungry.

Though the government has introduced a voucher system for pupils eligible for free school meals in an effort to stop them going hungry, there are still parents who say their children have gone some nights eating just toast or even skipped meals.

New figures published by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, showed there was an 81 per cent increase in emergency food parcels given out during the last two weeks of March compared to the same period in 2019 – including a 122-per-cent rise in parcels given to children.

Meanwhile, the Independent Food Aid Network reported a 59 per cent rise in need from February to March – an increase 17 times higher than the same period last year. Almost a third of food banks in its network saw rises of 100 per cent or more this March compared to last year, and some recorded an increase of more than 300 per cent.

Food bank managers said loss of income and delays or difficulties accessing benefits were the most common reasons for demand, with many people who have never previously used food banks now reliant on them. The new data shows people struggling with the amount of income they receive from working or benefits as the main reason for the increase in need.

In the six weeks to 12 April, 1.5 million people applied for the UK’s main welfare benefit – universal credit – after about 18 per cent of the workforce had their hours cut or were made redundant due to Covid-19. New applicants are required to wait five weeks for their first payment, leaving many with no income during this time.

The government has also introduced a voucher scheme for poorer pupils in England while schools are closed, but parents and charities said there had been barriers to accessing this, including delays in receiving the £15 weekly tokens and difficulty getting to the supermarkets where they can be used.

A coalition of charities, including the Children’s Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, are now calling for a temporary “coronavirus emergency income support scheme” to ensure people facing financial hardship can access the resources needed to stay afloat.

The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign is seeking to raise £10m for The Felix Project so the charity can provide food for NHS staff, the poor and elderly who are unable to afford supplies or remain stuck at home for health reasons.

Charmaine Mitchell, 31, a single mother who lost her job in a chip shop because of the pandemic, said she was struggling to her feed children – aged 12, seven, and six – proper meals, to the point where sometimes they only had plain toast for dinner.

The family, who have lived in a hostel since last March after they were evicted from their private rented accommodation in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, are now relying on their local Trussell Trust food bank, which delivers a food parcel to them once a week.

“I feel like I can’t provide for my children properly. Some nights we only have tinned spaghetti or beans on toast. My son won’t eat spaghetti or beans so he just has to have plain toast,” Ms Mitchell told The Independent. “When they were in school they’d get breakfast and they’d get lunch, they’d come home and have dinner and a snack. Now I’m struggling to feed them lunch plus dinner.”

Ms Mitchell’s children usually receive free school meals and have received vouchers under the government scheme, but she said it had been difficult to use them as the family is supposed to be shielding because her son suffers from severe asthma.

She added that she also has to buy data for her mobile phone so the children can do their homework remotely as the hostel doesn’t have wifi: “I get the new data and within days it’s gone because three kids are trying to do their homework on my phone. Sometimes they can’t do their homework, so I’ve had to ask the school to send it through the post.”

Hannah Worsley, the manager of Norwich Foodbank, said that while the free school meal voucher system was helping some, other families were reporting delays in receiving the vouchers, having to travel long distances to the supermarkets where they can be used, or being unable to go shopping because they are shielding.

“We’re getting phone calls from parents in tears saying, ‘I don’t know where else to turn. I’ve never had too use a food bank before, but I promise I’ll donate when I’m better.’ People feel they cant have something for free. But that’s exactly what we’re here for,” she said.

Ms Worsley said food banks were the only option for many families as parents have lost their jobs and are now waiting to receive their first universal credit payment. She added: “I hate to think what would be happening if food banks didn’t exist. It would be horrendous. People would be starving.”

Luke Pollard, shadow food and rural affairs secretary, urged ministers to expand which shops could accept free school meal vouchers to include those supermarkets most present in our poorest communities, adding: “This is now not a crisis of food supply, it’s a crisis of poverty. People simply do not have enough money to buy the food they need.”

Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, called on the government to introduce emergency measures to ensure people are not “swept into poverty” during th Covid-19 outbreak.

“Like a tidal wave gathering pace, an economic crisis is sweeping towards us – but we don’t all have lifeboats. It’s not right that this has meant some of us don’t have enough money for essentials and are being pushed to food banks,” she said.

Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, added: “The solution is not in trying to distribute more food parcels but in providing sufficient income to the huge numbers of people impacted by this crisis and the poverty that preceded it.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We’re committed to supporting all those affected by Covid-19 through these unprecedented times and we’ve implemented an enormous package of measures to do so, including income protection schemes and mortgage holidays.

“For those in most need, we’ve injected more than £6.5bn into the welfare system, including an increase to universal credit of up to £1,040 a year. No one has to wait five weeks for money as urgent payments are available.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said more than £35m worth of voucher codes had been redeemed into supermarket gift cards by schools and families, adding: “We continue to encourage schools to work with their suppliers to arrange food parcels or collections for families eligible for free school meals. Where this is not possible, a national scheme was launched for schools to provide supermarket vouchers, which is delivering for thousands of schools.”

The Independent is encouraging readers to help groups that are trying to feed the hungry during the crisis – find out how you can help here. Follow this link to donate to our campaign in London, in partnership with the Evening Standard.

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