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When even Middle England sees demand quadruple: An everyday food bank story

Posted by Malcolm Burgess Oxfam Constituency Campaigner

16th Sep 2014

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I thought of my own sad little middle class story of financial desperation. My first job in advertising and I was having to say no to a small portion of processed cheese in a grisly Southampton market. In my open plan office I had to plead over the phone for a loan with a non-friendly bank manager in front of startled colleagues and was able to graduate to terrible Fray Bentos steak puddings.

It was strange having so little money as I dreamt up campaigns for luxury kitchens and spa pamper days but it was probably the nearest I've come to rock-bottom.

Visting a food bank recently for the first time and listening to its staff made me see my sad little sort of triumphing over adversity story - and I suspect those of many others - for what it was.

We think we know the truths of modern England with our neo-liberal economy, as told to us by our media and politicians where, as George Monbiot argues, 'The rich are the new righteous; the poor are the new deviants, who have failed both economically and morally are now classed as social parasites.' But these truths are actually more depressing, surprising and sometimes complicated than our sound-bite culture suggests.

Neither very rich or very poor, Colchester in north Essex with its sizeable London commuter population, is 'completely in line with national trends' says its food bank manager.

The once Roman capital of England is best described as archetypal Middle England, the kind of place that could host the Antiques Roadshow. But it's also an almost perfect example of the problems that lie beneath the surface and which no number of Costa Coffees and Starbucks can hide.

The food bank is a white-washed unit on a small modern industrial estate, a shortish walk from the town's pretty high street and is run by a small management team and warehouse supervisor and over a hundred volunteers, more of whom are always welcome.

Manager Linda Hurr, warehouse supervisor Brian Hill and Steve Bolton and Jo Stevenson,  two workers from the Trussell Trust, which provides support to food banks across the UK, patiently explained the workings of this church-based organisation to a small group of us.

Donations come from most of the major local supermarkets and their customers and the feedback from the latter has been uniformly excellent. Some customers even buy everything on the food bank's recommended list of items, separating out for breakfast, dinner and tea. Each food bank client, who must be referred by a bona fide agency and be given a voucher, is entitled to three parcels during what the food bank team call the 'crisis period.'

This October sees Colchester Foodbank's fifth anniversary but it's only this year that it has finally found a site with the warehouse facility and distribution post under one roof. Parcels are now issued from Mondays to Fridays, everything from co-ordination and collection to distribution made possible by the close working together of volunteers, agencies, organisations and groups.

I was struck by how warm, caring and non-flustered the team was - probably a contrast with the more target-driven ethos of some of the agencies who refer people to it. Linda the manager was keen to point out, however, that they were about more than just giving out emergency food when needed. They also offer longer-term help and advice, for example, about rents and jobs and training.

It can't be easy though especially bearing in mind that Colchester Foodbank has seen the demand for help actually quadruple in the last 12 months. They now give out at least 65 - 80 food parcels each week, which equates to nearly 6 tons of food each month. In 2010 they gave out 4 tons of food in the whole year.

January to April 2014 saw them distribute, for the first time, more than they received in donations by approximately 12 tonnes and empty shelves started to appear at the warehouse. They thought demand would go down by Xmas 2013 but this didn't happen.

People arrive here, the team explain, for a number of reasons - benefit delays, sanctions and cuts were mentioned as well as low incomes and zero-hours contracts. But all spoke passionately about seeing one of their roles as changing the perception of their clients. Few of these could be described, as lazy, and arrive here as a result of problems outside of their control. They also dispute the idea that an increase in food supply leads to an increase in demand. The facts don't bear this out.

I didn't know how each food bank is different. Colchester Foodbank pays a sizeable rent to an industrial landlord while other food banks get free premises. Some local agencies are also more pro-active in referring clients to them than others which can cause problems. I didn't know either that food banks are almost completely reliant on donations and funding - only a small amount is provided by the Trussell Trust - and raising money is a constant concern. It's a tribute to the over 400 food banks across the UK that they stay operational.

The team is now planning for the next five years and can see little let-up in demand, while the next tranche of welfare reforms as Universal Credit is rolled out further and benefits being paid directly to clients, not landlords, is a cause for concern.

A revelation? Not quite: I feel myself to be reasonably well-informed and my own views on the reasons for food poverty - low waged and zero hours contracts, problems with the benefit system - remain unchanged and, like others, I worry that we'll start emulating the US and Canada where food banks are an acceptable part of the landscape. A liberal acquaintance in the Mid-West talks proudly of the fact that her small town church dealt with an extra 1,000 clients last year while I find this troubling.

But when politicians either faff around the issues or are in complete denial, it's the churches and their partners who are having to pick up the pieces in nearly every town and city across Britain. For this we need to be very grateful and just hope the sticking plaster lasts.

For this is the true, sad story - and it's not a little one.

Blog post written by Malcolm Burgess

Oxfam Constituency Campaigner

More by Malcolm Burgess