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Foodbanks being used to plug state gap

United Kingdom
Human Rights

Liverpool Cental Foodbank Volunteer Andrew Lewington.

Andrew Lewington stood surrounded by food – great stacks of supermarket-brand cereal and tinned vegetables. Last Christmas he was literally starving. The 29-year-old, who is 173 centimetres tall, weighed less than 51 kilograms.

He had quit his job at the supermarket after an armed robbery there, but that decision meant he could not get Jobseeker’s Allowance straightaway. So he went days without food. Only when he called in to visit family members did he get a meal.

Andrew’s story is not unusual at Liverpool Central Foodbank. When I visited on 5 December 2012, manager Paul Edwards told me: ‘It’s heartbreaking to see people walk in here and [being too weak] to carry the bags [of food] home.’

As we spoke, British Chancellor George Osborne was making a speech in the faraway grandeur of the House of Commons, outlining the plans in his Autumn Statement.

The situation in Liverpool, already the most deprived authority in England, as well as in other communities, is going to get even worse in the New Year. Most working-age state benefits will go up by one per cent, which is less than half the rate of inflation. The Citizens Advice Bureau said the changes will hurt many families already on a ‘financial cliff edge’ after years of cuts.

As Osborne made his speech, the Foodbank’s development manager, James Sloans, watched the first people come in clutching their vouchers. He rattled off some frightening statistics: last year they fed around 150 people a month. Now it is feeding around 400. ‘We will feed 5,000 people next year,’ he warned.

The foodbanks, which are part of a network run by The Trussell Trust, stress that they are not here to replace the state. But some staff feel that they are starting to be used that way anyway, especially by the job centres.

James Sloans said that 43 per cent of the people who come to the Liverpool Central Foodbank have had their benefits delayed. He believes the system is bottlenecked and cannot cope with rising demand.

But it was the online money lenders that really frustrated him. ‘I would make pay-day loans illegal,’ he said. ‘They are causing huge problems and they are taking advantage of people in need.’

The day I visited was quieter than usual and most of the 17 people who came in over the two-hour period were unemployed single men. In the café, people sat down to free coffee and mince pies before they took their food home.

Stuart ate a free bowl of steaming hot scouse, the meat stew that gave Liverpool’s people their nickname. The 47-year-old has an anxiety disorder; he has also had his colon removed because it was full of benign tumours. Now, Stuart has suddenly been passed fit for work – after four years off sick – and has lost his fortnightly £198 ($322) Employment and Support Allowance.

Between mouthfuls of food, and ‘thank-yous’ to the volunteer staff, he said: ‘I only had enough money for the bus fare to get to my aunt’s.’ Stuart’s foodbank voucher meant he will go home with enough crisis food to last three days.

Two young men came in from a hostel. One of them, admitting he had done ‘silly things’ for money, raised his tracksuit trouser leg to reveal an electronic tag. ‘I’ve worked in the past; I’m not a bum,’ he said. ‘I got laid off about eight months ago…I haven’t got any GCSEs.

‘I’m only fit for factory work. Years ago, you could just walk into factory work, but now there’s that many people applying for jobs it’s harder.’ He admitted to feeling ‘degraded’ about coming in – ‘I don’t even like signing on,’ he added.

‘We had a lorry driver the other day, who had worked 30 or 40 years,’ said James Sloans. ‘He was a typical guy, trying to put a brave face on it. It was a massive issue for him to come into a foodbank and ask for help. He was quite embarrassed.’

He remembered one woman, a full-time employee of a housing agency, ‘crying her eyes out’ when she came in with a voucher.

Volunteer Kathleen Quayle added: ‘You can be jogging along; then you lose your job and your whole world is turned upside down.’

The volunteers foresee big problems from April, when Community Care Grants are replaced by a new system administered by local councils. The worry is that councils are in such dire straits – Liverpool budgeted to save £91 million ($148 million) last year – that they will try to spend as little as possible on the new system.

The Liverpool Central Foodbank has stockpiled about 10 tonnes of food, mostly stored at its warehouse in nearby Speke, as it expects the food crisis to worsen. In December, Mayor Joe Anderson pledged £50,000 ($81,000) towards the city’s foodbanks and warned Liverpool has been hit by a ‘triple whammy’ of the recession, public spending cuts, and changes to the benefits system.

Andrew, who was going hungry for days on end last year, is working again, and in his free time he is volunteering at the Foodbank. And the food he boxes up is donated by people from the same deprived community that is being hit hardest by the cuts.

This final safety net is being provided by those most in need.

For information on how to donate to the project, visit the Liverpool Central Foodbank website.

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