Rise in families forced to turn to food banks

Food bank volunteers in Southhouse Broadway 'organise stock.  'Picture: Neil Hanna
Food bank volunteers in Southhouse Broadway 'organise stock. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
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IT is a moment which will haunt Kathy Betteridge forever. As she worked handing food parcels in the Salvation Army Hall in Gorgie, a timid young boy walked back up to her.

Hesitating, the six year-old plucked up the courage to make his plea: “Can I have some more please? I’m really hungry”

The scene could have come straight from the Dickensian workhouse and shocked Kathy and her team of volunteers who are used to working with some of the Capital’s poorest families.

For many children, said Kathy, the food situation gets a lot worse as soon as they break up for the school holidays.

“We see a lot of kids who rely on their school lunch for their main meal, come the holidays they become reliant on their parents,” she explained, recalling what happened on the first day of this year’s holidays.

“Last Friday we had a young boy ask if he could please have more food because he was really hungry. It’s heartbreaking to think that this can occur in 2013.

“He has been here before and his family are obviously living in very difficult circumstances.”

The hard reality is that almost 2000 children will receive their Christmas dinner from a food bank in the Capital this year. In total the number of people in the region expected to turn to this vital service for their Christmas meal has risen to more than 6000 over the last year.

Heartbreakingly, organisers are finding parents are being forced to send their children to live with other relatives at Christmas as the struggle to feed them proves too much.

Campaigners have likened the situation to what would be expected in the wake of a natural disaster, while one councillor described it as “deplorable”.

At present, there are eight food banks within Edinburgh and the Lothians, feeding 4227 adults and 1989 children.

The Trussell Trust, which operates the valued facilities, has welcomed more than 200 people through the doors of its most recently opened food bank in Gorgie in just a few weeks.

Last year the organisation had just three food banks – in Edinburgh North West, Edinburgh South East and West Lothian – feeding 1112 people.

However, in recent months it has opened five more across the region, with critics claiming that Westminster cuts and the so-called bedroom tax are having a severe impact on the city’s poorest families.

Ewan Gurr, Trussell Trust Scotland development officer, said: “We’ve had cases where people have had to send their kids to a different parent or family member as things have become so bad.

“We also see cases of malnutrition where people have scrimped on their own meals so as to feed their children.”

The two busiest food banks are located in Edinburgh North West and West Lothian, where volunteers help 1607 and 2509 people respectively.

This is a sharp increase on last year when just 234 people in the North West and 487 in West Lothian made use of the service.

The Gorgie foodbank is the city’s most recent and covers the postcode areas EH14 – Gorgie, Balerno and Wester Hailes; EH13 – Colinton and Oxgangs; and EH11 – Sighthill and 

Opened earlier this month, it does not feature in the Trussell Trust’s overall figure of 6216 food bank users in Edinburgh and the Lothians, but is expected to cater for more than 200 families through this festive period.

Manager Kathy explained: “The food bank is free and people are referred via referral agencies such as other charities, social work, housing and medical centres. We issue them with vouchers which they in turn will give to a family or individual who is in a crisis situation.

“Those who use our service are then provided with a food supply for three days, mostly long life, packet or tinned goods.”

Forth councillor Cammy Day’s constituents make use of the Edinburgh North West food bank, a situation the Labour politician finds “deplorable in this day and age.”

He said: “I am dismayed and it is an absolute disgrace that in 2013 in Edinburgh people need to use food banks. When you hear of people using food banks you think of those in the wake of a tsunami or other natural disaster, not a cosmopolitan city. “It’s not just the bedroom tax to blame, people are also witnessing a cut to the their benefits, while food and energy bills rocket.”

Cllr Day said one constituent is left each week with just £10 and the dilemma of either buying fuel, paying the bedroom tax or buying food.

He said: “That is the dilemma she is faced with and what does she do? She buys fuel, enters arrears on the bedroom tax and goes to a food bank for her food.”

Most UK food banks are co-ordinated by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity set up in 200 as the UK’s only food bank network. By 2004 it ran two food banks – now it operates 406.

Founded by Carol and Paddy Henderson, the couple had focused on street children in Bulgaria, but were contacted by a British mother who was struggling to feed her children.

Non-perishable items are donated and volunteers pack, sort and distribute the food. Food parcels are designed by dieticians to provide recipients with nutritionally balanced food for three days.

Chris Mould, executive chairman of the Trussell Trust, said: “The level of food poverty in the UK is scandalous and it is causing deep distress to thousands. The time has come for an official and in-depth inquiry into the causes of food poverty and the consequent rise in the usage of food banks. As a nation we need to accept that something is wrong and that we need to act now to stop UK hunger getting worse.”

Green city councillor Gavin Corbett added: “Nothing more aptly symbolises the last three years than the dramatic increase in demand for food banks. It illustrates both the best and worst of our society: the best in the commitment and generosity of volunteers and donors; the worst, in the way that austerity policies are hammering those at the foot of the economic pile.

“But more fundamentally it exposes how utterly corrupt our centralised and mechanised food system really is, one that lavishes enormous profits for supermarkets and results in a third of food being wasted.”

* Individuals, schools, churches and businesses can physically donate non-perishable, in-date goods to individual foodbanks. Supermarkets often hold special collections when shoppers can purchase and immediately donate items for local people in crisis while buying for themselves.

Serving up support

THE world’s first food bank, St Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Arizona, was established in in 1967, and since then many thousands have been set up all over the world.

In the UK, traditionally food hampers have been given out to the elderly and vulnerable members at Christmas but year-round hunger has been a prominent issue since 2007 and has dramatically increased since 2011.

Most UK food banks are co-ordinated by The Trussell Trust – a Christian charity which serves as the UK’s only food bank network.

The Trussell Trust was established in 2000 by Carol and Paddy Henderson. The couple had focused their work on street children in Bulgaria, but were contacted by a British mother who was struggling to feed her children.

A food bank is not a soup kitchen. Whilst the majority of food banks do give food directly

to the hungry, it is done by the issue of a voucher system which is given out from a third party.

‘You’ve got to put food on the table. It’s very tight’

BOB and his partner began using the Edinburgh South-East food bank more than six months ago after he lost his job as a builder’s labourer. The couple, from Gracemount, are both on benefits of just £60 a week each.

He said: “When you take into account gas and electric and other bills you don’t have much left and you’ve got to put food on the table. Week to week it’s very tight.

“I was working up until six months ago and because I hadn’t been on the social for so long it took some time for me to get my request processed. There was no money coming in and I was getting into debt so I went to the Citizens Advice and they suggested that I go to the food bank.

“I’m not embarassed about being seen going to the food bank, it’s a hurdle you need to get over, the people are very kind. You can get a cup of tea and a sandwich, they don’t make you feel like a beggar.”

The 45-year old said: “When I was working I never would have imagined I’d one day be using a food bank. I was lucky compared to others in the recession as I kept my job but in recent months the work just dried up.

“Hopefully it will turn around again and I’ll pick up work but in the meantime I’ll use the food bank.”