Miss Piggy once said “Never eat more than you can lift. ”
Regrettably this is not a problem that many people on low incomes face today. In April, the UK’s leading foodbank charity, the Trussell Trust, said they had seen the biggest rise in numbers given emergency food since the charity began in 2000. Almost 350,000 people had received at least three days emergency food from their foodbanks during the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 more than anticipated and close to triple the number helped in 2011-12. The Trust put this down to the rising cost of living, static incomes, changes to benefits, underemployment and unemployment. Delay in payments of benefits was the single most significant factor. Then last week the Trust announced that since April the number of people receiving emergency food was triple the same period last year.
The increasing use of foodbanks has sparked political controversy. Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, said in July that there was no evidence that the increase in use of foodbanks was supply led or demand led. By supply-led he meant that demand at foodbanks could simply be high because the food was free and becoming more available. He did make clear that, although the Government considered there to be no evidence of a link between more use of foodbanks and changes in the benefit system, foodbanks were to be admired and that local food provision that reflected the needs of local areas was absolutely right.
Then in September, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, said in relation to foodbanks that there were families who faced considerable pressures and that these pressures were often the result of decisions that they had taken which meant they were not best able to manage their finances. So the Government needed to ensure that support was not just financial, and that the right decisions were made. The suggestion that families themselves were responsible sparked further uproar with a Labour MP describing the comments as ‘insulting and out of touch’.
So who is right? Citizens Advice Waverley has collected some information on what has led some of their clients to need food on an emergency basis since the beginning of this year. In about half of around 70 cases examined, a delay in payment of benefits has been a factor leading the client to not have enough money to buy food. A refusal to pay, a reduction in benefits, or benefit sanctions were also factors in just under a third of cases. Employment Support Allowance or Job Seekers Allowance were the benefits in question in most benefit related cases. However, a significant number of our clients – about a fifth – have needed food for other reasons, and may be short of money because they are in debt or because they have spent their money on other things.
This is a small sample but it does suggest there is a relationship between the welfare system and people’s need for emergency access for food, and that benefit delays are an important factor. It is also true that some families will need help with managing their finances where their income is less than their expenditure or where they have incurred significant debts. So support should not just be financial.
If you need emergency food, you can search the Trussell Trust website to see if there is a food bank in your area at www.trusselltrust.org. You will usually have to have a food voucher to take with you to their food bank in order to get food. People like GPs and social workers, and charities such as your local Citizens Advice Bureau, may be able to issue you with a food voucher. The Trust foodbank can then give you up to three days’ emergency food. There are also other foodbanks in the Waverley area. Ask your Council or your Citizens Advice Bureau.