Coronavirus: Food banks in crisis as £1bn panic-buying spree leaves families facing ‘real hunger’

‘Staples we normally put in food parcels, like bread and other basics, are just not on the shelves,’ volunteers warn

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
,Lizzy Buchan
Saturday 21 March 2020 22:52 GMT
Public urged to stop 'selfishly shopping' during coronavirus pandemic

“Real hunger” is affecting Britons on a scale not seen in decades as food banks are hit by the dual impact of soaring demand and dwindling supplies due to panic buying sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, charities have warned.

Staple components of emergency food packages are “just not on the shelves”, one charity boss told The Independent, while another spoke of his fear that worse was to come given that the UK would be on lockdown for months.

British households have stored an estimated £1bn worth of goods in their homes during the pandemic, according to figures given at the latest government press conference, creating shortages despite manufacturers having produced 50 per cent more food than usual in the last week, as shoppers ignore assurances that supply chains are robust.

Charities are warning that the “unprecedented” circumstances are hurting the most vulnerable, including those who had lost their jobs and the elderly.

The appeals come as the government used Saturday’s coronavirus briefing to reassure shoppers that Britain has sufficient food supplies, and to end recent scenes of shoppers clearing shelves of staples such as pasta and rice. Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, accused panic-buyers of depriving healthcare staff of the food supplies they need, adding: “Frankly we should all be ashamed. These are the very people that we all need to look after perhaps us or our loved ones in the weeks to come.”

When asked by The Independent whether measures would be taken to help food banks, enabling them to bulk buy, environment secretary George Eustice acknowledged the problem and said that talks were ongoing with supermarkets.

Justin Byam Shaw, founder and deputy chairman of the Felix Project, which collects just-in-date and surplus food from supermarkets and restaurants to distribute to charities and schools across London, said many food banks had been forced to close due to a shortage in supply.

“People are stockpiling and no longer wish to donate food. Food banks rely on members of the public and that has dried up. They just can’t keep going,” he said.

“For the first time in my lifetime we’re starting to see real hunger in London. It’s incredible that in the 21st century we are seeing actual hunger. It’s completely unprecedented.”

Mr Byam Shaw said the impact of this drop in donations, as well as a reduction in volunteers due to illness and self-isolation, had been made more stark by the increase in demand.

“If you have just lost your job, you have no income and no prospect of income until you can get universal credit. You still have to pay rent and utility bills, food comes second,” he said.

“And then you’ve got people who are self-isolating and a lot of them are elderly. Schools have closed, and although vulnerable children are allowed back in, there are others who we know don’t get good food provision in the holidays.”

Discussions are said to be taking place between the government and supermarkets about whether food banks might be able to access supplies before shops open to the wider public, or be made exempt from purchase restrictions.

Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, said the lack of food on supermarket shelves was a “huge issue” for the charity’s service providers.

“Over this next week it will increasingly become a problem. While many of us have been able to think what do we get in, for people on very low incomes or no income at all, stockpiling isn’t a possibility,” she said.

Appealing to the public for help, she added: “People should consider what they’re buying, and as they do so they should consider food banks and those who might not be able to access it. Ask local food banks and see what they need.”

Bob Ashford, chair of trustees at Fair Frome, a Somerset-based charity which runs a food bank, said demand had “spiralled” over the past week, with the number of people collecting food parcels up around fourfold.

“It’s unprecedented. There are queues every day. And it’s going to increase further. Most of our clients are already highly disadvantaged, and the virus is increasing their vulnerability hugely,” he told The Independent.

“But the staples we normally put in food parcels, like bread and other basics, are hard to source because of the stockpiling. It’s just not on the shelves.”

Many food banks have also seen a sudden drop in volunteers as many, often due to their age or pre-existing health conditions, have been unable to leave their homes due to the risk of contracting the virus.

Mr Ashford encouraged the public to generate a “wider community response” by looking out for their neighbours and donating to their local food bank or offering to volunteer.

James Quayle, who heads up the North Paddington Food Bank, said he and his team were having to “scratch around” to obtain the supplies they needed because they were subject to purchase restrictions in supermarkets.

“As it is, we haven’t been able to get all the food we need for next week. Everyone knows that food banks are already stretched, so there should be alarm bells ringing that we won’t be able to respond to the need now,” he said.

“More people will be going hungry. It’s worrying that things are already at this point because we know we’re not at the worst of it yet.”

The current demand rivals that seen at Christmas, said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, speaking at Saturday’s press conference, only “without the four-month build-up period”. She added that there was “plenty of food in the supply chain”.

Amid the mounting concerns, many companies have established initiatives aimed at bolstering emergency food supplies, with Asda donating £5m to community charities and extending accessible hours for NHS workers, while Manchester City and Manchester United donated £100,000 to food banks.

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