Food poverty is everywhere in 21st century UK

County Hall, Northallerton (just up the road from Hambleton FoodShare)
Photo credit: Beta tester75
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All credit to Marcus Rashford for forcing the government to finally face up to the issue of food poverty. For a decade at least, those on the front line have watched the government rely on charities and food banks to support failures in the benefit system. The introduction of universal credit in 2013 left the most vulnerable at breaking point, with many waiting weeks for money to arrive. The pandemic has shone a cold light into many dark and dusty corners in our country; hunger is one of the most shocking.

You are unlikely to associate the prosperous North Yorkshire market town of Northallerton with food poverty. Yet, since opening in 2012, Hambleton FoodShare has seen a year-on-year increase in demand. Coordinator, Alison Grainger says rural poverty is a hidden problem: “People are embarrassed to admit they are going hungry, sometimes they are in tears when they ring us”.

Requests for food parcels in Northallerton tripled during the first three months of lockdown, compared with the same period last year. The pandemic has hit the countryside economy hard. Seasonal employment in farming and hospitality is unstable. Many rely on overtime or second jobs just to feed their families. Nothing is left for a rainy day. The government furlough payments took over six weeks to arrive, and when they did arrive, 80 per cent of not very much, is poverty.

Grainger says the community has been very generous during the pandemic. While collection points in churches are closed, supermarkets have donation points in their stores. Of course, most welcome are the generous cash donations from individuals and trusts. Money helps the food bank buy much-needed and expensive fresh food, nappies, and toiletries. Last month, local MP and chancellor, Rishi Sunak sent a letter of thanks to the staff and volunteers of the Hambleton food bank. The treasury, however, did not provide any financial support.

Now a vital service, food banks rely on thanks and goodwill to feed families. Take Catherine for example (not her real name). Catherine is a single mum, in April she was about to open her first hairdressing salon. She’d given up her job and poured all her savings into the new business. She was left without government help when lockdown was imposed. With three children to feed, the food bank was a lifeline.

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Across North Yorkshire and the rest of the country, the chancellor provided immediate support to business. It amounted to millions of pounds in grants and loans. Frontline charities such as food banks have had to apply to the National Lottery scheme for assistance, which may take months to materialise.

At the start of lockdown, the government contracted commercial food distributers to deliver food parcels for the vulnerable. These parcels appeared out of the blue, with no information about who they were from or how to cancel them. The quality and type of food was wholly inappropriate for those with health conditions such as diabetes – or for anyone wanting a healthy diet. Others, on good pensions and with support networks, did not need them. Much of this unwanted food ended up in the food banks, where it took up volunteer time to collect, sort and deliver.

“Most people only use once the food bank once,” says Grainger. “We are very grateful for all food donations but before you donate, ask yourself whether you would eat it. If you’ve overcome a huge hurdle to contact us, and are given food past it’s sell by date, it could make you feel worthless”. She laughs off a comment about food bank scroungers: “We give out tins of beans and soup, not caviar and champagne”.

If the government can institute a national food scheme during the pandemic, Grainger asks why it is normally so hard to feed people. She doesn’t understand why there isn’t an emergency food helpline for the people who need it. This would bypass the time-consuming bureaucracy of the benefit system and stop postcode hunger.

In every community, there are people suffering from short or long-term illness, disability, or just bad luck. The sign of a civilized society is that it looks after its most vulnerable. The pandemic has shown us this is possible. The government has shown they can make it happen. Providing food for those in crisis is a drop in the ocean compared with the millions given to support business.

The government relies on food banks to plug a gap in their benefit system. If food banks are part of the system, they need to be funded properly. Relying on public goodwill, celebrity endorsement and thanks is not sustainable.

People from all walks of life use food banks. For more information about Hambleton FoodShare, or if you want to volunteer or donate please contact them HERE.

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