Life on the poverty line: Breadline Britain

Special report: Rising numbers of desperate families need charity food aid

Jonathan Owen,Brian Brady
Sunday 12 December 2010 01:00

Thousands of people will be forced to take charity food handouts or go hungry this winter, as poverty hits people across the country. The spectre of families forced to subsist on charity hampers is so widespread that the Government is to provide food vouchers for the most desperate.

The need for the food parcels was described by campaigners as a throwback to levels of poverty more associated with Dickensian times than Britain in the 21st century.

The number of people needing food handouts has soared by 50 per cent since 2009, according to the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs a network of more than 70 food banks.

Those dependent on emergency food boxes, which contain a three-day ration of essentials including tinned meat, fish and fruit, pasta, tea, milk and sugar, has increased from 25,000 two years ago to 60,000, of whom some 20,000 will be children. The organisation estimates that, on current trends, this would swell to 700 food banks feeding 500,000 people by 2015.

In response, Jobcentre staff are to hand out food vouchers to the neediest cases. The scheme will be unveiled by the Government later this month, The Independent on Sunday learned last night.

Last week it emerged that 3.7 million children live in poverty in Britain with a record 2.1 million working families now below the breadline. The situation will get worse in coming months as food prices rise, VAT increases to 20 per cent, and job losses due to public sector cuts mount.

Traditionally, the homeless have been the main beneficiaries of free food parcels. But organisers say they are increasingly helping families and working people. Some parents are so desperate they skip meals or contemplate crime to feed their children.

Chris Mould, the director of the Trussell Trust, said: "It is a scandal that hundreds of thousands of Britons every year hit crisis and are forced to go hungry. These are not homeless people on the street. These are people struggling on low incomes.

"This is a largely hidden problem, and there is still a taboo about people getting this type of help."

This was evident last Friday on a road just off Parsons Green in west London, as a food bank at Christ Church, Fulham, prepared for the weekend rush. Its storeroom was crammed to the ceiling with food donated by the local community. One woman had provided presents, and Christmas cards made by local schoolchildren were being handed out.

Staffed by volunteers, food banks rely on donations. People are referred to them by health visitors or social workers, and get vouchers to exchange for food. An emergency food box for a family of four is worth around £28.

It is the kind of operation normally associated with a disaster relief appeal. The first visitor at Christ Church, a dishevelled man in his 40s, arrived looking nervous and embarrassed. He was ushered in and given a cup of tea and a flapjack. Another visitor, presented with two large bags of food, seemed overcome: "Is all that for me? Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

The Labour government stopped Jobcentres distributing food bank vouchers in 2008, claiming people in crisis would get help if needed.

But Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has come under pressure in recent weeks to act. A pilot scheme will be launched before Christmas. "There is a need for this. Our staff can help, so it is a simple decision," an official from his department said last night.

Campaigners welcomed the move. "We're delighted that Jobcentre Plus is considering making things better for people when they are in crisis – this is long overdue," Mr Mould said.

"The welfare system is creaking and far less able to cope than it was 10 years ago. There are people who cannot put food on the table for themselves or their families ... they are faced with impossible choices between heating, keeping a roof over their heads and eating."

Helen Longworth, the acting director of UK Poverty for Oxfam, said: "Over the past 10 years the price of food has risen by 50 per cent. We hear stories every day of families who turn to soup kitchens for something to eat. There are children with scurvy in Islington; that's a disease that should only exist in 18th-century stories."

The reality is that a delay in the payment of a benefit can tip the balance for many people. This accounts for about a third of those needing emergency food handouts.

Additional reporting by Frances Perraudin

Anne-Marie Hough, 19

Given an emergency food pack earlier this year, when a delay in benefits coincided with her partner being ill and not getting sick pay. The couple and their two-year-old daughter, Tia, from Salisbury, were living in one room to reduce heating bills.

"We had no money left, it was snowing and we were all sleeping in one room to save on heating. Our cupboards were bare, all our money went on nappies and formula milk for Tia. It was really hard. It is so frustrating not to be able to have the essentials, to not be able to provide the basics for your child. It gets you really down."

Paul Loss, 23

Unemployed bakery worker from Tredegar who visited a food bank for the first time last Friday.

"I've been about four days without food; it's pretty tough. But now I've got a few bags of food to tide me over. If I hadn't come here, I would probably either have been ill or would have had to shoplift or something just to get some food. I've been around friends and family and they've just got fed up of helping me out. This was the last resort."

Raymond Earls, 39

Unemployed father of four, from Haverhill, Suffolk. His family were left hungry after a problem with benefits earlier this year.

"We were having child-sized portions and the kids were having very little. We were all just having a main meal once a day after a small breakfast. The children were complaining about being hungry, which was very difficult to deal with. I never expected to find myself in a situation like that. It was a shock. If it hadn't been for the food bank I don't know what I would have done."

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