The number of desperate families forced to turn to the city’s foodbanks looks set to more than double this Christmas.
Foodbank bosses are anticipating their busiest days yet – with around 3,000 vulnerable Leeds residents expected to fall into food poverty over the festive period.
But one centre manager has warned they simply haven’t enough supplies to meet soaring demand – so those handing out emergency food parcels will face the heartbreaking choice of whether to feeding struggling pensioners or hungry children.
Lucy Pitkin, project manager at Leeds West Foodbank, said frontline agencies such as social workers and children’s centres in the west of the city had already requested an unprecedented 450 food packages to help their most cash-strapped clients over the Christmas holidays.
She said: “We didn’t expect demand to be that big.
“That’s the equivalent of 5.8 tonnes and we haven’t got that.
“We are going to have some difficult decisions to make – choosing which agencies get that food.”
She said organisations like children’s services, who used the foodbanks most throughout the year, would be prioritised over services for older people.
Foodbank managers across the city fear the number of families living on the brink of financial despair will be tipped over the edge this December as hard-pressed parents are forced to choose whether to eat or to heat their homes, as well as trying to provide presents for their children.
What should be a magical time of year is a potential nightmare for people living on the breadline.
That’s why - with just four weeks to go until Christmas - the YEP is today relaunching its Feed A Family campaign, to help feed some of the most vulnerable children in Leeds.
And we are calling for an army of volunteers to give the gift of time and sign up to help their local foodbanks.
Karen Burgon, project manager for Leeds North Foodbank, said: “Little children think everything is going to be all right because Santa is going to bring stuff for them but actually Santa can’t do everything.”
She added: “There will be children who will wake up on Christmas morning to find something there - who might have a bare food cupboard - or if they have got food then they haven’t got something under the tree.”
She said: “Having a handout of food doesn’t solve everything but it’s a start.”
Lucy said she had broken down in tears at the plight of one family, where a ravenous toddler was frantically eating margarine straight from the tub.
Another family had brought their newborn baby home to find the gas and electricity had been cut off. The father had been made redundant but they were homeowners with a mortgage to pay and no benefits available to them.
Today we launch our campaign as a shocking new study reveals delays and gaps in the welfare system are behind the soaring numbers turning to foodbanks.
Problems linked with benefits, such as sanctions or waiting for payments, are one of the main reasons people turn to food banks, says a report by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and the Trussell Trust.
Trussell Trust chief executive David McAuley said: “This new evidence brings into sharp focus the uncomfortable reality of what happens when a ‘life shock’ or benefit problem hits those on low incomes: parents go hungry, stress and anxiety increase, and the issue can all too quickly escalate into crippling debt, housing problems and illness.”
For most of this city’s four Trussell Trust foodbanks, this will be their first full winter and they are all expecting to be inundated with families forced to rely on charity because they can’t afford to eat.
They have warned that with youngsters missing out on free school meals during the Christmas break, many parents will skip meals to prevent their children from going to bed hungry.
Last Christmas they provided emergency food parcels for around 1,200 people across Leeds who had nowhere else to turn.
Despite a baseline of more than 16 tonnes of food between them, they estimate that they still need to collect at least a further seven tonnes of food to meet demand over this year’s festive break.
Dale Lassey, a volunteer with Leeds South Foodbank, said people only turned to foodbanks as a last resort.
“Some people look like they need to eat immediately – before they collapse.
“Some haven’t got gas or electricity at home so we have to supply them with food that doesn’t need cooking.”
Lucy warned that while collecting festive treats might appeal, what struggling families really needed was kitchen staples. Both North and West are desperately short of tinned fruit and tinned vegetables.
Lucy said: “It’s lovely for children to have a treat but a chocolate advent calendar is not going to sustain a hungry child throughout December.
“We are seeing families who don’t have enough money to buy the basics.
“And we have got older people who won’t have anything to eat over winter – they can’t live on mince pies and selection boxes.
“We need proper food from our shopping list.”
Demand for the service continues to rise, with Leeds West opening a further six sites between now and next summer and East adding a further seven by the end of 2015.
Linda Jackson, project manager for Leeds South and East, said: “The challenge is to get the volunteers.
“It’s an army of people we need.”
When the YEP launched its original Feed a Family campaign this summer, big-hearted readers helped to feed more than 1,260 desperate people across the city – almost half of whom were children.
Once again we are calling on readers to pledge their support and buy items off our special shopping list over the next four weeks.
Collection points will be available around the city to support foodbanks in north, east, south and west Leeds.
Businesses, charities and organisations across Leeds can also hold their own food collections or donate money or time to individual foodbanks.