Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Food banks struggle to feed hungry as demand rises

Charities torn between helping those in need and resisting prospect of taking over duty previously fulfilled by state

In the 13th most deprived borough in England, a fragile part of the local emergency welfare ecosystem is in danger of collapse. Haringey food bank, in north London, has warned it is struggling to meet the explosion in demand for food parcels from local people living on the breadline.

The food bank was evicted from its rent-free warehouse at short notice by a developer last November and has not found a suitable home. It still collects food donations but now distributes them from two small temporary outlets, a church and a local play centre. There is little storage, no room to talk to clients and no office space. The landline telephone number listed on its website no longer works. Its one full-time administrator has had to be laid off.

At the same time demand is rising inexorably. The spectacular expansion of food banks across the UK over the last two years is a powerful indicator of growing poverty as well as a sign of dedication and enterprise of the volunteers who created them.

The crisis in Haringey – and problems in other food banks – is exposing the limits of voluntarism and the brittle and precarious nature of the "big society" approach.

Queues, rationing and desperate appeals for food donations as demand outstrips supply are a feature of some food banks, and volunteers are beginning to question whether it is right – or whether they have the capacity – to take on a growing burden that was until recently considered a duty of the state.

The rising need for food parcels from people on benefits and from low-paid working families unable to make ends meet, he says, "is just frightening." 

He says he is not political. But he is quietly furious at the way he feels policymakers and politicians fail to understand the often desperate consequences of what may seem like small cuts to the incomes of people already living close to poverty.

He wrote to local MPs asking them simply: "Why is there a need for food banks?" Two didn't answer and the other two failed to answer the question, he says ruefully.

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