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Food banks - a great solution or an impending crisis?

Volunteer Phil Rutt and The News Fareham reporter Kimberley Barber sorting through the Sainsbury's delivery. 

Picture: Sarah Standing (142344-1411)

Volunteer Phil Rutt and The News Fareham reporter Kimberley Barber sorting through the Sainsbury's delivery. Picture: Sarah Standing (142344-1411)

The number of people using food banks has grown in the last few years. Reporter Kimberley Barber pays a visit to Fareham and Gosport Basics Bank to look at what goes on behind the scenes and speak to people on both sides of the breadline

They have been described as a magnificent response to difficult times by cabinet office minister Nick Hurd so I decided to go behind the scenes at a food bank to find out what life is really like for those forced to rely on a hand out, and for those dealing with the ever-growing numbers of people turning up at the door.

The Fareham and Gosport Basics Bank is tucked down a small side street in Fareham town centre and from the outside it’s hard to comprehend the hard work and commitment that is squeezed into every inch of the former funeral director’s store room. In some rooms the shelves are bulging, but as volunteer Phil Rutt explains, things are not all they appear as he shows me to a room I last visited on the back of The News’ Christmas campaign, which encouraged people to donate.

In this room, it’s a different story, whereas in January there was hardly room to squeeze in, the shelves are once again bare.

Phil says: ‘The stuff is going out of the door faster than it is coming in. There’s been no cessation in demand.

‘In the year to June, we have helped up to around 4,600 people. That number just keeps going up. There’s still demand and there are still people in this community that are in all kinds of dire straits.

‘They don’t want to be here, they are embarrassed to be here. There’s a stigma about being here.

‘We see people in tears as they don’t know what they are going to do. You can look some people in the eyes and see nothing as all their hope has gone. There are continuing stories of sadness.’

Phil says that it’s not all sadness as he is often heartened to hear of the generosity and kindness of the people that donate.

Families that go out of their way to drop in supplies, schools and churches organising collections, even the local mosque, the Al Mahdi centre, has been incredibly generous.

Just before the food bank’s doors open, a delivery comes in from a local supermarket.

This is the result of a trolley placed at the front of Sainsbury’s Broadcut, into which shoppers can drop donations.

There’s at least 10 full bags and the contents range from teabags, to soup, to chocolate.

Someone has even dropped in some sample nappies and a sample shower gel, which looks like it’s come out of someone’s summer holiday suitcase, and they get put on a stand in the waiting room for people to help themselves to.

Phil says the trolley at Sainsbury’s has been an amazing success and that it needs to be emptied at least three times a week, providing the charity with a constant stream of produce.

Other trolleys have sprung up across the area, in Tesco’s in Fareham, and at the Co-ops in Lee-on-the-Solent and Portchester.

These trolleys work well as a list of the most-needed items gets posted on to the food bank’s facebook page and Phil says ‘as if by magic’ the items appear in the trolley.

Amid the wonderful tales of community spirit, there’s no denying the service has grown incredibly since it was set up in 2003.

Even in my two years as Fareham reporter, I’ve seen the food bank extend its reach and get busier and busier. I can’t help but wonder if there can be any solution to the problem.

Phil quips that he would like to see the food bank close due a lack of demand, but he acknowledges that it is highly unlikely to happen with the current benefit and welfare system in place.

A recent government report blamed high global food prices, a high inflation rate leading to a decline on take-home pay and significant changes to the benefits system for the growth in food banks.

According to Channel 4 News FactCheck, the numbers using food banks in the UK grew to 40,000 after six years of Labour government and grew an additional 90,000 in two years of the coalition.

It is widely speculated that more people unemployed coupled with strict welfare reforms have led to the dramatic rise – with more than 500,000 people in the UK reliant on food aid, according to research conducted by Church Poverty in Action and Oxfam.

Phil says that benefit sanctions, where benefits can be temporarily suspended, reduced or stopped when claimants are deemed not to be meeting the conditions, is one of the main reasons people are forced to turn to food banks.

His comments echo that of Tim Nichols, a spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group, who said that the sanctions regime was an ‘unfolding scandal that is doing tremendous damage to jobseekers or disabled people, even when they are trying to do the right thing.’

Mr Nichols said that claimants were finding it difficult to understand how the sanctions work or how it applies to them, and that this is not helped by a ‘chaotic bureaucracy’ of the Jobcentres.

Figures released from the Trussell Trust, the largest network of foodbanks in the UK, support this and show that benefits sanctions are a major reason for the growth of food banks.

It said that out of 350,000 people it helped across its 420 food banks from April to September 2013, 35 per cent of people were there due to delays in benefits and 19 per cent were there due to changes in benefits.

As the food bank opens, it’s only a few minutes before the first customers turn up.

Phil Cheverton, 56, and his partner Mary Abraham, from Fareham, have walked to the food bank as their benefits have been stopped and they have been signposted to the food bank from the JobCentre.

Both suffer from learning difficulties and several health conditions and say they are finding it hard to understand why their benefits have been stopped. They say there’s been a lack of compassion and a lack of help from the authorities. They have been without any money for four weeks and their cupboards are bare, which is why they have made the trip to the food bank.

Ms Abraham, 56, said: ‘If it was not here, we would be up the creek without a paddle.’

Mr Cheverton had to give up his job in a hotel due to his health problems. He said that since the welfare reform, they have been reassessed and their benefits stopped.

They had little money before and now are completely penniless.

He said: ‘We have tried not to use it but when you are in dire straits.’

Phil and the other volunteers pack them a couple of bags.

They try and give them a choice, where possible, asking them if they like tea or coffee, and if they like different brands of cereal.

They are also asked if they need other essentials, like toothpaste and washing powder, things that the everyday person takes for granted. The couple leave knowing that at least they can eat tonight.

And their story is not unusual, Phil he says they are a typical example of how a system is failing some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

It makes him hopping mad, but it is clear to see that he has a passion for helping others and that the food bank is filling a void in many people’s lives.

I ask him if he can ever see a solution to the problem,

Phil replies: ‘The solution would be to get rid of poverty, at a stroke. But there is still an issue with benefit sanctions that pushes people in.

‘There is a degree of poverty, with issues to do with unemployment, redundancy, illness, both mental health illness and physical, all these factors affect and drive what we do.’

What the food bank needs

- UHT milk

- Sugar

- Loo roll

- Soup

- Packet mash potato

- Pasta sauce

- Jelly

- Chocolate

- Shaving foam

- Morale-boosting presents

What’s on the shelves

Everywhere you look in the food bank, there is a bag of pasta.

There’s a huge stack of boxes in one room and piles of it everywhere else.

Compare that to the small shelf of pasta sauce, and, well, the figures don’t add up.

Volunteer Phil Rutt says that while they are grateful for any donations, they would like to see more of certain things.

He’s been placing a list on the food bank’s Facebook page, which shows the items that the bank is desperately in need of. He says: ‘We are after the stuff like meat, fish, the usual suspects such as peas, carrots, potatoes and morale-boosting treats. When people are low we try and give them a little treat, something as small as a bar of chocolate can go a long way to improving someone’s day.’

There’s a huge pile of nappies in the food bank thanks to a supermarket promotion where they gave them free to customers and who in turn dropped them into the donation trolley at the front of the store.

The food bank also gives out toiletries. Phil says they are always in need of shaving gel, shampoo and shower gel.

He says: ‘It’s another string to people’s lives. It’s personal hygiene.’

People are referred to the food bank from the JobCentre, council or church. They are given a voucher which they have to present at the food bank. People can apply for up to four vouchers per year.

There is a staple list of essentials which make up the bag, with extras given as and when the food bank has stock.

Volunteers sort, stack and pack

Fareham and Gosport Basics Bank is run by a team of volunteers who give up a few hours of their day to help sort, stack and pack.

Samia Hubble joined the bank two months ago. She had spent 20 years working as a missionary before moving to Portchester with her husband Reverend Canon Trevor Hubble.

Mrs Hubble heard about the bank through the church and signed up to help.

She says, ‘It was an eye opener. To come from the Third World and the poverty there and to see that poverty exists here too.

‘There is a great need here and people are grateful of the bank as it supports them through a gap in their life.’

Long-time volunteer Jill Sharland, from Sarisbury Green, has worked at the food bank since it was set up in 2003.

Mrs Sharland, a retired civil servant, says, ‘There was a time when we would be quiet and drinking cups of tea, waiting for people to come through the door, but that rarely happens now. There are so many people coming to us, both in need and with donations.

‘There are people that come here that are ashamed to be here and there are those that are in tears. They are grateful for what we give them. You feel like you are helping other people.’

The food bank is in need of more volunteers to help them throughout the week.

It is also in need of a van and driver to help distribute the goods between Fareham and Gosport. The food bank receives more donations in its Fareham branch and would like to spread the goods to help its Gosport food bank.

If you can help go to friendsofthehomeless.org.uk or call 01329 822204 or email enquiries@friendsofthehomeless.org.uk

 

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