INDEPENDENT food banks cannot see how they will get through this winter, as yet more people are forced to turn to charity to feed themselves and their families, says the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). Measures in the Autumn Statement do not provide the help urgently needed now.

Over a third of organisations contributing to IFAN’s latest survey reported concerns about their capacity to provide their standard level of support. As well as raising alarm bells about their ability to source food and other resources, 45 per cent of organisations reported poor quality surplus food, while 73 per cent had seen a drop in food donations.

The wellbeing of food bank workers and volunteers continues to be compromised,
as staff and volunteers face increasingly distressing and challenging situations. One food bank manager said: “This understandably takes its toll on the team, and we have had to put extra measures in place to try and protect them, including training courses and counselling provision.” Another food bank manager said: “Our volunteers are suffering as they are hearing harrowing details of some people’s lives. They too are struggling from the cost of living, several are behind on fuel and council tax payments. Mentally, resilience is reducing.”

IFAN is calling on the Government to think again about the level of support they are providing this winter and beyond, saying that at the very least, an Essentials Guarantee must be put in place to ensure Universal Credit payments are enough to afford the basics. It is also essential to continue to fund the Household Support Fund which has been providing vital support, often by way of direct cash payments in local authorities across England.

IFAN is also calling for the removal of key drivers of severe food insecurity, including the five week wait for Universal Credit, the benefit cap, the two-child limit, sanctions, No Recourse to Public Funds status, and benefit deductions. Ultimately, to eliminate the need for charitable food aid, says IFAN, everyone needs to be able to access a Living Income, providing for the Institute of Health Equity’s Healthy Standard of Living for All.

Sabine Goodwin, Director of IFAN said: “This week’s Autumn Statement demonstrates the government’s blinkered approach to the scale of the poverty crisis facing Britain today. However positive, making National Minimum Wage increases, bare minimum rises to social security payments and unfreezing Local Housing Allowance in April is not going to give respite to people facing financial hardship and struggling frontline support agencies this winter.

“Draconian changes to Work Capability Assessment threaten to push yet more people into hardship and there are fears that the potential removal of the Household Support Fund could have a devastating impact in communities across England. Poverty and destitution are already having a calamitous impact on households the length and breadth of the country right now. The government needs to urgently prioritise increasing people’s incomes and reducing hardship as the winter sets in.”

Charlotte White, of Earlsfield Foodbank, Wandsworth said: “Any rise in the minimum wage is welcome, as the level has been inadequate for so long, plus the extension to younger people is definitely a good thing. However, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s still below what the Living Wage Foundation calculates to be an adequate wage, based on changing living costs, and therefore it’s unlikely to have the impact that is needed. Also, so many of the issues we see with working people at the food bank aren’t just down to low wage, but insecure hours and bad working practices such as last-minute shift cancellation. It would be great to see these issues addressed.”

Catherine Evans, of Pontarddulais Area Food Bank in Swansea said: “It’s really tough. About 10 per cent of the guests we see every week are in ‘deep crisis’ (no money at all due to benefit sanctions, facing eviction, family breakdown etc). The stories are heart-breaking and many guests in crisis talk of suicidal thoughts. This means that all volunteers who are guest-facing encounter really challenging situations every week. There is so much sadness and pain, it is sometimes difficult to absorb. We are really worried about the coming months – not about our ability to meet the demand, but just how on earth people are going to cope, when they’re already at rock bottom and have been struggling for so long. Without a doubt, January and February will be our worst ever months.”

Ian Harwood, of Brackley Foodbank in West Northamptonshire said: “Our food bank has become, if not the first port of call, then certainly one of the more prominent options given by local council and NHS agencies to people approaching them in situations of food poverty. We are becoming a significant and regular support to people referred to us in these circumstances. This is a very risky strategy.”

Su Parrish, of The Easter Team in Crawley said: “I am concerned for our clients who are now facing a winter with less support than last year and who cannot see any hope in their circumstances improving, no matter what they do to try and improve them, or how hard they work. I also have huge concerns about the coming months in terms of our capacity to continue to deal with an ever increasing number of requests for food support. Each request comes with an amount of stress and emotion for the client requesting and the volunteer responding and I’m seeing volunteers becoming run down, both physically and emotionally.”

* Access the survey data here.

* Source: Independent Food Aid Network