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Keith Taylor and a volunteer at the Kings Church food bank in Portsmouth.
Keith Taylor and a volunteer at the Kings Church food bank in Portsmouth.
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Food banks in southeast England: struggling to meet demand

Keith Taylor MEP

19th November 2013

Green MEP Keith Taylor represents the people of 'prosperous' south-east England in Europe. But as he found visiting food banks in Portsmouth, not everyone shares in the prosperity around them.

This Christmas will see more parents seeking help to feed their kids than there at any other time in recent history.
On the far Western edge of Portsmouth, jutting into the harbour, are two of the poorest wards in my constituency. One of them, aptly named Charles Dickens Ward, is one of sixty places in the UK where a child is more likely to grow up in poverty than not to, according to a Barbardo's report.

This ward, which hosts the soon-to-be gutted shipbuilding facility run by BAE, is bordered to the South by St Thomas Ward, where the same report shows that more than four in ten kids live in poverty.

It was St Thomas Ward which I visited on a cold Friday in early November to meet the people running an emergency food bank. The staff and volunteers at the centre, who give up their time to help those in need, are struggling to keep up with demand as more families than ever come in need of emergency food parcels. 

At the foodbank I met John. He was now volunteering after receiving help from the food bank at a time in his life when he had lots of problems. By degrees he'd lost his good job, his accomodation, developed a drug habit and drifted into street drinking, until his life was in a very dark place.

He told me he thought that a lack of food was the least of his worries: he could always scavenge or beg. But he realised that he eventually needed to get back to a 'normal life' and regular meals, or he would die. 

I also met Mary, a single parent who just can't keep up with the expense of clothing and feeding her children, and often goes without food herself so her kids can eat. For her, the food bank was a lifeline at a time of desperation. 

Figures from across the South East, which have previously been released by the Trussell Trust and will soon be updated in a report I'm writing at the moment, clearly show that John and Mary’s cases are part of a national trend which sees more and more families relying on food handouts to get by. [3]

Indeed there’s little doubt that this Christmas will see more parents seeking help to feed their kids than there at any other time in recent history.

Lord Freud, a millionaire ex-investment manager and, of course, a government minister said earlier this year that the nationwide rise in food bank use was simply a response to increased 'supply'. But this flippant remark belies the fact that food banks are, in fact, responding to a cost of living crisis that the government is responsible for overseeing. 

Despite what many people think food banks aren’t places where you can just turn up and get free food whenever you want. Indeed nearly all food banks work on a system of referrals from a professional (like a doctor or Citizens' Advice Bureau) and the vast majority put a strict limit on the amount of food parcels anyone is allowed. 

According to the Trussell Trust 355,985 people received a minimum of three days’ emergency food from their foodbanks between April - September this year, compared to 113,264 bin the same period last year. Of those helped in the last six months, over 120,000 (35 percent) were children. 

A total of 65,177 people (19%) were referred to Trussell Trust foodbanks due to benefit changes between April and September 2013, compared to almost 14,897 (14%) in same period last year. 117,442 people (35%)were referred due to benefit delay, compared to 35,597 (33%) last year.

Behind these shocking statistics are thousands of people living on the edge. Some will be struggling because of a sudden change in their circumstances, others will have experienced long, cold, hungry winters before. For many of the people of Charles Dickens ward in Portsmouth this Christmas will be harder than any other in living memory.

Young families will be feeling the squeeze of wages stagnating and jobs being lost, those reliant on benefits will have less money in their pockets than before and pensioners will, once again, be worrying about whether they can afford their fuel bills. 

Amid all of the talk of an economic recovery it’s worth considering whose benefiting from the UK’s return to growth. The people of Charles Dickens ward, and indeed the many thousands of people across my constituency who can’t afford to put on the heating or put decent food on their plates, know that the economy still isn’t working for them. 

The names of food bank users have been changed.

Keith Taylor MEP represents the South-East of England in the European Parliament for the Green Party of England and Wales.

 

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