Foodbanks in survival mode as Covid-19 causes spike in demand.

“A perfect storm.” That’s how Laura Chalmers, Yorkshire regional director of the Trussell Trust, who run 29 foodbanks in the county, describes the situation in Yorkshire. 

According to a study carried out on the 28 March by the Food Foundation, 12 per cent of people nationally are feeding families by breaking the lockdown to go and work, and six per cent have taken out personal loans. The Trussell Trust received 81 per cent more applications in the last two weeks of March compared with the similar period in 2019, a spike in demand that has placed enormous strain on foodbanks largely staffed and funded by volunteers. Nowhere does this apply more than with food banks in Wakefield.

At St George’s foodbank in Lupset, all the volunteers are over 70 meaning there was an instant loss of workforce when the lockdown came. Wakefield Council gave financial assistance and the food bank stayed open as a Covid 19 Response Hub co-ordinated by  NOVA Wakefield with a core team of staff who have realigned their work to manage the Hub, recruiting new Covid 19 volunteers through the Volunteer Wakefield website, who are packing and delivering food parcels,  shopping for isolating people and collecting medication.  

Lockdown also meant that the service had to change overnight from a drop-in to home delivery. According to Sarah Cutts from Christians Against Poverty, this change, though welcome and necessary, has disrupted the relationship-building which was such an important part of the collateral impact of foodbanks.

“Those relationships had taken years to build up and provided vital information about a range of needs going far beyond food poverty. There was almost a mutiny among the volunteers! They wanted to keep helping.”

Sarah Cutts, Christians Against Poverty

Almost all of the area’s foodbanks were previously drop-ins, usually in a place of worship, where there would be a café area and somewhere volunteers could chat with clients. This often led to identifying other needs and signposting users to other sources of support. Now, everything is focused on delivering door-to-door. Referrals via Social Care Direct have stopped completely and everything is done via online applications. 

Laura Chalmers explains:

“This has changed our demographic. We’re now getting people who would never normally come through our doors. It’s highlighted how fragile people’s incomes are. We’ve seen a 122 per cent increase in applications from families with children. People have been tipped into the Universal Credit system and the time-lag involved has meant we’ve had to upscale quickly.”

It seems there is no shortage of people wanting to give their time though, and foodbanks have been inundated with new volunteers. The main problem, in a world of social distancing, is that the necessary training cannot be given, so potential volunteers are sometimes left frustrated.

In Walton, in West Yorkshire, villagers have come up with a novel response to this conundrum via a network of local volunteers and community groups organised on a street-by-street basis to deliver food parcels and prescriptions. At the same time, on the other side of Wakefield, the Real Junk Food Project, a long-established group based in an industrial unit just outside the city centre, has been so overwhelmed with demand that they, reluctantly, have had to stop accepting applications for their isolation packs, as they are still in the process of trying to deliver parcels to those previously identified. 

This has been a strange by-product of the Covid-19 crisis: If a thing is true in one part of town, the opposite usually applies in another. Stuck in our homes, our street becomes the world and the world becomes our street. For those seeking to address the crisis of everyday needs, this presents massive practical challenges. However, Laura Chalmers says that food banks have had one thing in common:

“They’ve all gone into survival mode: doing whatever they need to do locally to address the needs in front of them.”

Help has come from some unexpected quarters. Everyone interviewed for this article spoke warmly of the help received from the big supermarkets. On a similar scale, and largely unreported, British Gas contacted the Trussell Trust to offer their entire fleet of ten thousand gas engineers as a delivery service. Furloughed but in possession of vans and, crucially, DBS clearance, the help has amounted to 35,000 volunteer hours equating to 923 full-time working weeks. 

Foodbanks always present a moral paradox. On the one hand, they show how much people in communities really care. On the other hand, it’s a scandal they exist. When the lockdown started the Trust’s food bank in Knottingley was broken into and the stock stolen. A week later, they re-opened with all their stock replaced by public donation.

The Trussell Trust are clear where they stand: 

“No-one is ever immune from debt. We will be here for as long as we’re needed whilst all the while campaigning for a time when we’re no longer needed.”

 For more formation on The Trussell Trust’s Coronavirus response:

Christians Against Poverty

Walton Aid