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A Christmas Bonus! A helping hand to better days

The pandemic, compounded by steep price rises, especially for fuel, have made hard lives even harder. Here Andrew Forsey, Director of ‘Feeding Britain’ shows how people in time of need can be helped to return to self sufficiency. 

While the whole country continues to grapple with the social and economic consequences of coronavirus, organisations like Feeding Britain are fighting a particularly tough battle this Christmas to protect the living standards of people at the bottom of the pile.

Among the more potent weapons in our arsenal are community-led initiatives which take root in areas where people are struggling to access or afford food and other essentials. But these initiatives differ quite considerably from food banks. Rather, they tentatively follow Lloyd George’s description of the earliest forms of national insurance, as ‘getting ninepence for fourpence’.

Ranging from citizens’ supermarkets and pantries to food clubs and food buses – all of which bring affordable food and wraparound support to the heart of the community – these initiatives are helping tens of thousands of people in working-class households stretch their budgets further, by enabling them to access an average of £18 worth of shopping for £5 a week, and in doing so avoid having to rely on food banks or other forms of crisis provision.

Driven by principles of reciprocity, contribution, and mutual aid, these initiatives are simultaneously improving people’s intake of fresh and healthy foods, boosting their mental and physical health, adding to their financial resilience (through the on-site provision of credit and savings facilities), and strengthening their sense of belonging within the community. Moreover, they begin to address some of the root causes of insecurity and instability in the lives of people who regularly find themselves only one large bill, broken fridge, school uniform cost, reduction in working hours, or benefit problem away from becoming reliant on food banks.

A common estimate among the 95 such initiatives we’ve developed is that up to 60% of the people shopping there would have needed a food bank in the absence of this service. Instead, it has not been uncommon for people to use the money they’ve saved through the service to clear rent arrears and other debts, and to build up enough of a shock absorber within their budgets so that the next time their children need new school uniforms, for example, this is no longer enough to tip them into crisis.

Our data also suggest that for roughly half of the 14,000 households who’ve signed up to them, these initiatives represent a daily or weekly source of affordable food. For the other half, they represent an insurance policy or safety blanket of sorts, so that once every six weeks or so, when money has been particularly tight, they could continue to shop and not have to skip meals or use a food bank. As an additional benefit, many of the initiatives run family cookery and eating sessions during school holidays; offering a year-round bulwark against chronic poverty and destitution.

Against these rays of hope comes the nasty bit. Our fear is that the recent skyrocketing in gas and electricity costs, just as people’s incomes are being squeezed, will add significantly to the numbers of people for whose budgets there is simply too much month left after all available monies have been spent. One little boy said to his Mum when they were aboard one of our food buses, ‘Do we really need to go home, Mummy? If we stay here we have internet, it’s warm, and there’s food, and we don’t have any of these things at home’. A Dad who had recently joined one of our initiatives in Merseyside commented to a volunteer that this was the first piece of meat he had been able to afford for his family in six weeks.

Indeed, we’ve begun to find that some of those who used to draw on our help once every six weeks or so, and for whom membership of our initiatives represented an insurance policy, are now doing so weekly or even daily. Some of those who were using a debit card to pay for their membership are now using a credit card.

Worse still, some of those who used to rely only on food are now relying also upon the help we can offer with gas and electricity costs. Aboard one of our newer food buses, two-thirds of people signing up at its first couple of stops required this combination of help. And a family in London recently sought help one Friday afternoon with just 5p on their gas meter. Thankfully they not only received the support they needed to cook and eat that weekend, but also to find ways of bringing down their energy costs in the longer run and prevent this scenario occurring again.

So people really are clinging on by their fingertips to avoid the nightmare scenario of having to admit defeat and either use a food bank or go without food. We will be doing our utmost in the New Year to bolster and extend the layer of protection we’ve built in the communities we serve, to help people navigate their way from one week to the next without having to sacrifice food or other essentials.

Among the more potent weapons in our arsenal are community-led initiatives which take root in areas where people are struggling to access or afford food and other essentials. But these initiatives differ quite considerably from food banks. Rather, they tentatively follow Lloyd George’s description of the earliest forms of national insurance, as ‘getting ninepence for fourpence’.

Ranging from citizens’ supermarkets and pantries to food clubs and food buses – all of which bring affordable food and wraparound support to the heart of the community – these initiatives are helping tens of thousands of people in working-class households stretch their budgets further, by enabling them to access an average of £18 worth of shopping for £5 a week, and in doing so avoid having to rely on food banks or other forms of crisis provision.

Driven by principles of reciprocity, contribution, and mutual aid, these initiatives are simultaneously improving people’s intake of fresh and healthy foods, boosting their mental and physical health, adding to their financial resilience (through the on-site provision of credit and savings facilities), and strengthening their sense of belonging within the community. Moreover, they begin to address some of the root causes of insecurity and instability in the lives of people who regularly find themselves only one large bill, broken fridge, school uniform cost, reduction in working hours, or benefit problem away from becoming reliant on food banks.

A common estimate among the 95 such initiatives we’ve developed is that up to 60% of the people shopping there would have needed a food bank in the absence of this service. Instead, it has not been uncommon for people to use the money they’ve saved through the service to clear rent arrears and other debts, and to build up enough of a shock absorber within their budgets so that the next time their children need new school uniforms, for example, this is no longer enough to tip them into crisis.

Our data also suggest that for roughly half of the 14,000 households who’ve signed up to them, these initiatives represent a daily or weekly source of affordable food. For the other half, they represent an insurance policy or safety blanket of sorts, so that once every six weeks or so, when money has been particularly tight, they could continue to shop and not have to skip meals or use a food bank. As an additional benefit, many of the initiatives run family cookery and eating sessions during school holidays; offering a year-round bulwark against chronic poverty and destitution.

Against these rays of hope comes the nasty bit. Our fear is that the recent skyrocketing in gas and electricity costs, just as people’s incomes are being squeezed, will add significantly to the numbers of people for whose budgets there is simply too much month left after all available monies have been spent. One little boy said to his Mum when they were aboard one of our food buses, ‘Do we really need to go home, Mummy? If we stay here we have internet, it’s warm, and there’s food, and we don’t have any of these things at home’. A Dad who had recently joined one of our initiatives in Merseyside commented to a volunteer that this was the first piece of meat he had been able to afford for his family in six weeks.

Indeed, we’ve begun to find that some of those who used to draw on our help once every six weeks or so, and for whom membership of our initiatives represented an insurance policy, are now doing so weekly or even daily. Some of those who were using a debit card to pay for their membership are now using a credit card.

Worse still, some of those who used to rely only on food are now relying also upon the help we can offer with gas and electricity costs. Aboard one of our newer food buses, two-thirds of people signing up at its first couple of stops required this combination of help. And a family in London recently sought help one Friday afternoon with just 5p on their gas meter. Thankfully they not only received the support they needed to cook and eat that weekend, but also to find ways of bringing down their energy costs in the longer run and prevent this scenario occurring again.

So people really are clinging on by their fingertips to avoid the nightmare scenario of having to admit defeat and either use a food bank or go without food. We will be doing our utmost in the New Year to bolster and extend the layer of protection we’ve built in the communities we serve, to help people navigate their way from one week to the next without having to sacrifice food or other essentials.

To make a donation to Feeding Britain, click here.

 

Andrew Forsey

Andrew Forsey is the Director of Feeding Britain, a charity that was established in 2015 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger. He is the co-author with Frank Field of Not for Patching: A Strategic Welfare Review (2018) and Fixing Broken Britain? (2016), having also led his parliamentary office between 2013 and 2019. They are co-authors for Politeia of Revisiting Beveridge: A Benefits and Welfare System for the 21st Century (2020).

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