Fears for vulnerable people in Leeds this winter as foodbank demand rockets in pandemic

The most vulnerable people in Leeds face a five way challenge this winter as the demand for foodbank help skyrocketed during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a poverty support network has warned.

By Emma Ryan
Monday, 20th September 2021, 4:45 am

Despite coronavirus restrictions easing and sectors of the economy returning - there is still a tough time ahead for the people in the city who were struggling before lockdown and have seen their situations get worse.

The warning comes from Leeds Aid Food Network who argue poverty problems in the city go way beyond a one-off food parcel.

Its latest statistics reveal that between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 there has been a 47 per cent increase in the number of times people have accessed a food bank through referral with a jump from 41,606 referrals between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020 to 61,137 for the period April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021.

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Jason Williams prepares one of the delivery trucks at Fare Share in Holbeck

For the same time period the number of food parcels given informally by organisations is 153,335. That is 9.6 times more than the 2019-20 time-scale, which was 15,968 parcels.

The data has been gathered through Leeds City Council, Voluntary Action Leeds, FareShare Yorkshire, Rethink Food, the Trussell Trust, We Care Leeds, Leeds Food Aid Network (FAN)

and individual providers including organisatons that become part of the council's community hub response such as Slung Low, Pudsey Parish Church, the Hamara Centre and Rainbow Junction, who, all joined together in a collaborative effort to make sure the most vulnerable people in Leeds were being fed as coronavirus swept the country and saw the nation forced into lockdown.

The people on the poverty line were hit by loss of work, existing low incomes, ongoing debt and trying to navigate a tricky benefits system. The combination of low income, combined with periods of self isolation meant many vulnerable people struggled but also led to many members of local communities stepping up to support vulnerable people.

Dave Paterson from Unity in Poverty Action (UPA)/Leeds Food Aid Network (FAN)/West Yorkshire Food Poverty Network (left) pictured at Fare Share with manager Isaac Fogg

One volunteer who works at Rainbow Junction at All Hallows Church in Hyde Park said that at the peak of pandemic the queue, with families having to bring their children for handouts and Friday food parcels went "around the block" and that is was "dire".

He said: "It was toiletries and nappies as well. Others might consider that a luxury but it isn't when you have got a couple of kids and you can't afford it. We are still in a slump and it should not be like this in a cosmopolitan and global city. We should not be doing this but needs must and people are desperate."

Dave Paterson, chair of the Leeds Food Aid Network, explains: "The data shows the huge effort that was made by so many different initiatives and faith communities to serve some of the poorest people during the pandemic. Foodbank usage was up nearly 50 per cent, cooked meals remained steady and the biggest increase by far came through food parcels being given out on an informal basis without the need for a referral (155,000).

"The volume was enabled through strong partnership working and this included the council, FareShare Yorkshire and Rethink Food working together to distribute food to many different providers including the 30 Community Care Hubs established by Voluntary Action Leeds.

"These included Rainbow Junction, Pudsey Parish Church and the Hamara Centre. The coordinated effort meant that people who had experienced unemployment, issues with benefits, low income and those that needed to self isolate were often catered for by a strong coordinated response."

The safety net was widened for families with the uplift to Universal Credit by £20 a week. However, that uplift is being revoked and winter is on its way, which Mr Paterson adds, is just going to pile the pressure on people who have had to struggle through the last 18 months as it is.

He added: "Moving forward many of the cities most vulnerable people face a potential five way challenge this autumn as the Universal Credit uplift is reduced by £20, energy prices rise, furlough comes to an end, some third sector organisations cut back due to a lack of funding and we may face the highest levels of inflation for ten years due to increasing transport costs.

"I encourage everyone to play their part in tackling food poverty and would ask the government the reconsider its plans to cut back the uplift of Universal Credit, which has helped thousands of people in our city"

There is also an effort being made involving third sector organisations, schools and council community hubs to provide activities and food over the Christmas holidays resourced by the Department of Education, Leeds City Council and Leeds Community Foundation. This is helping assist thousands of children over holiday periods, when families struggle due to not being able to access free school meals.

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