More and more cash-strapped families in leeds are relying on food bank handouts to tide them over as living costs rise and cuts begin to bite. Aisha Iqbal reports.
a tiny room at the back of a charity shop has become the key to survival for hundreds of struggling Leeds families.
This is the Armley food bank, based at the St George’s Crypt shop in Town Street.
The room is packed at any one time with around 400 kilos of food items, all donated by individuals, churches and supermarket collections.
“That will go out in no time at all - it will probably be gone in a week,” says Chris Fields, chief executive of St George’s Crypt.
Mr Fields estimates that “tens of thousands” of people in Leeds will be relying on food handouts in the coming months, especially as the Government’s welfare reforms kick in properly from next month.
This year, almost 250,000 people across the UK will rely on food banks. Across the county in Sheffield, where three food banks were set up last year, 859 people used them in the space of a few months.
The numbers from the Trussell Trust reveal a stark picture of the onset of a 21st century depression in the UK.
The Trust is a network of grass-roots organisations, led by churches, who are trying to tackle the problem head-on.
It says the rising costs of food and fuel, combined with static income, high unemployment and changes to benefits are causing more and more people to come to food banks for help.
The Trust has already launched or is preparing to launch 316 food banks. Its goal is for every city to have one.
In Leeds, there will be four food banks up and running by the end of the year - one in each corner of the city.
The first was set up by St George’s Crypt. A facility in south Leeds is due to launch in the summer.
Mr Fields says: “We often talk about Leeds being a patchwork city, lumps of velvet next to hessian.
“People just down the street from you can be really in need, without anybody knowing.
“It can be redundancy, or waiting for benefits to come through.
“It’s almost like food becomes secondary to bills.
“Food banks are an intervention - they are there to help these people who are not necessarily destitute, but who find themselves in hard times for a short period of time.”
Any family accessing the Armley food bank has to be referred by an agency or care professinal, which could be their doctor, housing officer, midwife or health visitor.
They will be given a voucher stating how many people are in their family, and how many days they need food for.
While a survival kit of tins, packet foods, long life milk and other items is put together in used supermarket carrier bags, staff will work to signpost people to avenues for long term help. Food bank vouchers can be used three times a year.
Rather than a sign of desperation. says Mr Fields, a visit to a food bank can be about “catching people before they fall”.
And he is keen to stress that resorting to handouts is not a source of shame or embarrassment.
“The jobcentre plus is there, the benefits agency is there, but there is nobody really there when you hit the wall,” he says
“People are proud. Everybody wants to survive and to look after their own family in their own way, and sometimes the last thing you want to do is ask for help.
“But people could have had a massive bill coming in, their roof could have fallen in, and they have got to find that money, or maybe their benefits haven’t turned up.
“Food bank fills that gap. It’s a short stop-gap but as a society we have got to realise that this could happen to anyone.
“It can happen to me and you next week.
“We have got fuel poverty, we have got food poverty, we have got a general poverty, where people’s finances are stretched.
“Hopefully the food bank is there for a short while just to help people tide things over.”
Asked if the food banks are, in effect, doing the Government’s job, Mr Fields is only willing to say that statistics from the food bank will be fed back to the Government via the Trussell Trust to help it draw up wider long-term responses.
He stresses the project is working with ALMOS to ensure people in need, and especially those most likely to be hit by benefits cuts next month, will get help.
However he admits that the overall picture of growing poverty across the city is much worse than people expected.
“As soon as we started advertising the food bank, we were getting 20 phone calls a day from all over Leeds,” he says. “But the community is helping, and that’s the beauty of it, because you never know when it’s your turn.
“These are hard times. My mum can remember it being difficult in the 1930s, but I think we are going through a proper depression at the moment. This is a good time for charities to step up to the plate and for communities to come together. That is the good flipside of being in a depression. When things are bad, people tend to come together.” What do you think? Click here to register and have your say on the stories and issues that matter to you
‘It sounds like the third world, and will get worse’
For Helen Ingleby, a leading member of the soon-to-be launched south Leeds food bank, a key moment came when a 59-year old lady with special needs came knocking at her door, desperate for help,
The lady’s disability benefit had been refused after a review.
“She has a year left until her pension, and she is suddenly told she has to support herself and find work,” explains Helen.
“But who is going to employ her?
“She is going to appeal, but in the meantime, she has got no money at all.”
The lady is typical of the types of Leeds people increasingly relying on food handouts to survive.
The South Leeds Food bank is a project started and championed by a partnership of local churches, including Middleton Methodist Church, which Helen belongs to.
Deacon Al Henry is in charge of the flock at Middleton.
The church, along with partner churches, already provides drop in sessions where people in dire need can take away donations of food.
He believes there have ben failures by the authorities in anticipating the sheer breadth of the impact of welfare reforms and cuts.
“There’s been a lot of noise about it, but I am wondering why they [the authorities] are not hearing about it?” he says.
“It sounds like we are in the third world.
“We are not prepared for it and it’s going to get worse.”
The new South Leeds Food Bank is due to be launched in June, and organisers are currently looking for volunteers to help run it.
“People have been coming to our churches really struggling and saying they need food,” Deacon Al adds.
“That is why we thought we need to do something.
“Only last week somebody came to my house for help. We gave the lady some foodstuffs and some cans.
“We have had families coming with children. And we get cases where a giro hasn’t come in and there’s nowhere to turn to. There are even people who say they want to come for food but they can’t even afford the bus fare to come and get it and they ask us to deliver it.
“Charities and groups used to give things out, but their funding has been cut too.
“We say to church members, buy some extra to put in our church box.”
The Trussell Trust says there are currently 13 million people live below the poverty line in the UK. In 2011-12, food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide. In 2012-13, the Trust anticipates this number will rise to over 230,000.