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Fighting For Survival: Britain’s Hidden Crisis

Imagine a large queue outside your local food bank. Who are they and what do they look like?

Scruffy? Misbehaved? Uneducated? Lazy? Heavy smokers and drinkers? Do they even bother working or at the very least try finding a job? The general consensus is that those using food banks are all of the above and on top of that, they abuse the system. However, that’s not the case. In fact, these misconceptions are very harmful. ‘Get a job’ they’ll say….’you’re only here for the freebies‘.

We need to stop acting as if those who use food banks are beggars. Anyone can need a food bank – all it takes is a quick turn of events and you’ll be on the other side asking for food to help feed your family.

The main reasons for referrals within the last year according to the Trussell Trust have been due to benefit changes or delays (42%), low-income (28%), debt (9%) and homelessness (5%). This growing proportion of food bank referrals due to benefits are because they simply cannot cover the essentials. Debt statistics also show the strain individuals are put under whether it’s due to utility bills, council tax or housing.

Audrey Flannigan manages one of the Trussell Trust food banks and said: “I’m in no way a benefits advisory or know everything about it, but I do know that asking someone to wait between five and seven weeks before you get your first lot of money has to be seen as immoral and inhumane.”

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Being starved of our basic survival needs shouldn’t be a common thing to hear in the 21st century yet it is. The numbers of those using food banks are evidently rising and there appears to be nothing we can do about it.

For some families, the holidays are filled with days spent lying on the beach but for others, the apprehension and uncertainty during the holiday period hits them hard. For them, holidays represent a difficult time.

‘What fun activities will we do?’ ‘Are we going on holiday?’ ‘Why not?’ ‘My friends are going on holiday.’- it can be incredibly hard for less fortunate families to hear this. Imagine your days spent thinking what to eat and how you’ll spend your last £10.

Many children thankfully get free school meals so are fed throughout the school week, yet during the holidays, children return in a worse physical and mental state than before due to lack of nutritious food or lack of food, period. Costs that wouldn’t normally be covered now have to be factored into the likes of childcare. Parents are cutting back their hours at work to care for their children which means less income and results in less money to spend on meals and the paying bills.

Being malnourished of food can negatively impact our mental, physical and emotional health. During a BBC documentary, ‘Britain’s Hidden Hungry’, 21-year-old student Charlotte pawned her laptop for £25 in order to pay for living expenses. To get it back, she had to pay £32.50 within three weeks meaning she took a loan with an interest rate of 480%.

“If I hadn’t pawned my laptop, we wouldn’t have had anything to wash in – no lights, no heat, no food – nothing. My college work is on there, my baby photos – everything.”

With the money, Charlotte paid her electricity bills and spent the remaining £10 on food which lasted her less than a week. Living on the bare minimum, she explains: “The first two weeks are the worst because you’re so used to eating normally, you wake up and your body is like ‘right – food’ but you’re not eating – by the time its dinner, you’re so hungry, you’re not hungry.”

According to the MentalHealth.org, children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket in the UK are three times more likely to develop mental health problems, similarly, ‘Mental Health Today’ reported one in three households who use food banks suffer from depression and it’s getting worse.

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Denis Curran, Chairman of Loaves and Fishes alongside his wife, Cathy, have been helping people for over 25 years. In 2015, Denis was awarded an MBE for his hard-work, dedication and contribution to helping those less fortunate.

“My job is to make sure we have everything we need and to ensure the people who come to see us are happy and well looked after. We are totally dependent on people’s goodwill as we don’t get any funding from the government. Twice a week we feed people in the Oasis café in Renfield St, Stephen’s Church Centre in Glasgow. Some of them have come from the homeless background and haven’t escaped it so from October to March, we do three hot meals in the café as well as running the food bank.”

The café can serve as many as 40 people per night and can easily serve up to 100 in the food bank.

“Tommy who is at his wits end gets £15 for an odd job to put a meal down on the table. He is caught, sanctioned and called a liar, thief and a cheat – their benefits stop instantly. On the other hand, we have people misusing expenses to tuneify figures and they’re branded ‘honourable ladies and gentleman’ – how is that fair?”

Denis has been an advocate for helping food banks and helping those who use them. His most well-known speech is at the Scottish Parliament where he was outraged at the thought of people being penalised for being poor staring: “the heart of the matter is people are starving”.

There are many reasons why people seek help, those include:
  • lack of work
  • ill-paid work
  • redundancy
  • increase in rent/tax
  • unfit to work due to an illness, etc.
  • delayed/slashed benefits and much more.

So, what can be done?

First, the media need to look at stereotypes and myths surrounding those who use food banks and secondly, politicians need to invest in their people rather than needless expensive trips and meals out. During an episode of Panorama, Hungry Britain, Former Tory MP, Edwina Currie claimed there is no need for food banks “I think people make choices and what used to happen is putting food on the table was the first choice – now for many people it’s not and one of the reasons for that is they can get free food.”

It’s these myths and stereotypes that need to be stopped. Nobody wants to use a food bank or survive on one meal a day.

Between April 1 2017 and March 31 2018, The Trussell Trust’s food bank network distributed 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. This is a 13% increase compared to last year. Of the three-day supply figure, almost 500,000 were children.

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Nobody should have to skip meals and worry when they’ll be feeding their family next. Nobody should have to choose between eating and being cold or staying warm and starving to death and yet people are. They’re fighting every day for the need to make sure the phrase ‘starving to death’ is just a that, a phrase.

It takes a lot of courage to come to a food bank and admit to a stranger you can’t feed your family. It’s about time those struggling get help. Don’t allow anyone to live in fear, waiting for a knock on the door because they can’t pay their rent, electricity or they can’t feed their children – it’s not right and it should be the least of peoples worries. As Denis Curran quite rightly said: “those who can should do for those who can’t” and that’s where we need to start.

Next week it could be you on the other side seeking help – fighting for survival.

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