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Foodbank: our biggest client group now is people on low incomes

Board showing how numbers of foodbank users have increasedLast week, I spent a morning at the Poole foodbank on Longfleet. Staff and volunteers spoke about two significant trends: one, that demand for food parcels has trebled in two years and two, that their biggest client group is now people on low incomes - people who are working, but can't make ends meet because of rising rent, mortgage and living costs and low wages.

Poole foodbank manager Lorraine Russell said that: "Before, the primary reason (for needing food parcels) was benefit cuts or delays, but now that's been overtaken by people on low incomes. We used to get very few low-income people, but now that has taken over."

So much, then, for the government's "scroungers" rhetoric.

This is a transcript of the interview with Lorraine Russell. (Image by deptfordvisions: board shows year-on-year increases in the number of people using the foodbank):

"[This foodbank] started about six years ago, through work some people were doing with rough sleepers. There were a few people who were involved in helping with rough sleepers and a lot of food was donated at about harvest time - a huge amount of food. They thought - there has got to be a better way of managing this supply of food and from that, and from discussions with other folk, the foodbank was founded.

"I've been here for about four years and in that time the numbers [of people who need food parcels] have increased dramatically. Certainly, in the last month it has tripled from what we gave out [at the same time] two years ago.

"2763 people were fed last year and these weren't all new people. Some were ongoing. The idea of a food bank is that people are given a voucher from our partners - health visitors, social workers, the CAB and health professionals. They get a red voucher if they really can't afford [to buy] food themselves and so they bring it here and we give them a food parcel for the right number of people - single, couple, or families. The idea is that they come three or four times, over which period their presenting problem - whether it is benefit cuts, or [benefit payment] delays, or debt, or whatever it is can be sorted out, but it's not happened like that.

"If you're out of the benefits system, it takes an awful long time to get back in. If your circumstances change, then that alters everything. The person will be given a red voucher. The person who signs it off will tick the right box [which describes the client's circumstances] - [it could be] benefit cuts delays, debt, or the person may be an asylum-seeker, [or a victim of] domestic violence, or [experiencing] homelessness, or sickness. And the one that we're increasing seeing more of is people on low incomes. We usually try to signpost people to the CAB then, because they're got their finger on the pulse, so they can help people [further]. We are a short-term emergency gap for people who can't afford to buy food.

"Numbers are growing and we are seeing a lot of people on a fairly regular basis. Certainly, in the last six months, six to nine months, things have got worse financially and people have to pay more for their rent, or their mortgage has gone up, so they have to keep a roof over their heads and there's not enough money for a lot of people to actually buy food for their family.

"[There is a real] mix of people, ordinary people - there's not a typical person who comes to the foodbank. It's anybody - somebody who has maybe just lost their job, somebody who is maybe long term sick, so anybody, so they come here and we give them their food. It's given out in carrier bags - nothing has got a logo on it and we're very keen to emphasise that here, that we're not corporate. We don't have shirts with logos on them and we try and make it easiest as possible for people.

"I had a chap in this morning who said "I didn't think it was going to be as easy as this. I was really worried about coming in." There is a stigma for some people, particularly for men, to ask for help, because that is difficult, so we give them the food in carrier bags, so they go right out and blend in right away into pedestrian traffic, and they don't stand out which is very important to dignity and self esteem.

"People on low incomes are finding it very hard to make ends meet. A family came in the other week - he's been out of work for ages and he's just got a job, but he's not going to be paid for a month and his benefits will be stopped, and he's got a month before he can start paying the bills again, so we're very happy to give them a lovely big box of food and send them on their way.

"People do want to work... I had a guy come in last week - he was working in Southampton, but living on the streets, so he's living off the streets and going to work. That job came to an end. He couldn't be housed in Southampton, because for some reason, he had to come back to Poole, so he had nothing. So, I had to find him tins with ringpulls, because he had no cutlery. He had nowhere to cook, so he was going to be eating out of a tin until he could find somewhere to live. And this was a young guy who wants to work and I think that's the tragedy, and that's quite heartbreaking when you see especially young people of the age of our children and you think it could so easily be them.

"Mostly, the food comes from churches and schools. At harvest time we have a huge influx... mostly, [the food] comes from churches. We have a few companies now who are donating like at Christmas time. They won't give each other Christmas cards - they'll donate the money. Some companies will give us their toiletries. And other people now, [we're] just getting Joe Bloggs off the street now with a bag of food, or just giving me money because I think we're all aware how hard it is and those who do have a little bit to spare are wanting to share it and help.

"In the short term - no, I don't think things are improving...until the economy picks up I don't know, I can't see how things are going to improve, because if people only have a certain amount of money and they don't have anything to fall back on...of course, families are scattered now. Years ago, your family would have helped you - you would have had aunties, uncles, grannies. Now, people are very much struggling on their own.

"People are coming in here who have had to move house because rents have gone up. It's very expensive, especially in Poole, to live here and it's difficult because there is not that much accommodation going anyway.

"Sometimes, [the food stocks] get a bit low but it's amazing, because it just comes in.

"We're given money [sometimes] which is good, because then we can buy things like nappies, and baby food. I had one couple, they were taking over the care of their grandchild and the child benefit was being transferred to them, but they had to get stuff for a baby [before then] so I went down to ASDA to buy a whole lot of baby wipes and nappies, you know, just to start them off. I could do that, because I had been given money so that's really good.

"Mostly... it's mostly people on low incomes. Before, the primary reason [for needing food parcels] was benefit cuts, or delays, but now that's been overtaken by people on low incomes. We used to get very few low-income people, but now that has taken over."

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.


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