When a Unite Community holiday hunger project in Norwich also started a pop-up food bank this summer, branch secretary Brian Green said the desperation was unmistakeable.
“They simply charged at the food,” he says. “You could see that look in their eyes – the fear that there would not be enough for them. That uncontrollable sense of anxiety came from a place of total desperation. The last time I saw that fear was in South Africa. It’s shocking to see it here in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.”
Brian, who has helped spearhead the project with the support of the local Phoenix Community Centre, food waste campaigners Food Hub, the local Labour party and others, says with each passing month, the desperation of local families becomes more and more extreme.
The Unite Community Norwich lunches project, which gives packed lunches to children under 16 accompanied by an adult, no questions asked, has in only the last year expanded massively.
As the summer holidays drew to a close in August, the scheme had given away over 1,960 packed lunches, up from 600 the year previous. Its first successful summer led to more community lunch projects over school holidays throughout the year. And expanding from initially only providing packed lunch, the scheme now also offers pantry staples such as cereal, pasta and tinned food for families to take home.
On one of the final days of this summer’s project, Brian and his colleagues, volunteers from Unite Community and other local groups, are serving burgers, together with fruit, a snack and juice – all through Food Hub, which collects excess food from local supermarkets.
The Phoenix Community centre in Mile Cross is abuzz with parents chatting and children laughing.
Brian tells uniteWORKS that speaking to the families who visit, it’s the introduction of Universal Credit to the local area and the unending bite of the benefits freeze that have together caused the greatest hardship. He estimates it amounts to a 15 per cent cut over three years in what was already inadequate benefits three years ago.
Single mum Anna who’s brought her two children aged 9 and 5, was forced onto Universal Credit earlier this year, and she said it’s totally turned her life upside down.
In fact, the suffering she’s endured has been so fundamentally life-changing that she knows by heart the date she was forced onto Universal Credit. “March 10th”, she says, as if recalling a loved one’s birthday.
“Overnight, my benefits went down massively,” she says. “I had to wait five weeks to get the first payment. You don’t know what it feels like to hear your children crying themselves to sleep because they’re hungry.”
Anna says she always makes sure her rent is paid so that she and the children have a place to live. But then ensuring you meet one basic need like housing, under Universal Credit, only means you’ll have to make unimaginable decisions about another.
“After rent, there’s hardly nothing left,” Anna tells uniteWORKS. “We grow our own vegetables and get support from places like this – which have been a true lifeline – but we still go hungry. My kids are still growing and they eat a lot. They’re always hungry.”
Like so many trapped on Universal Credit, Anna has multiple health conditions, including osteoporosis, a spinal condition, a frozen shoulder and depression, but still she’s expected to look for work. “With the number of medications I take, no one’s going to want to hire me because of the side effects. And as a single mum, I can only work during term time,” she explains.
Ben, who lives with a number of mental health conditions, including ADHD and paranoid schizophrenia, still remains on legacy benefits but says he very much fears being put on Universal Credit. He’s come with his partner and two young daughters.
“I know we’re going to be on Universal Credit soon, and things are already hard as it is,” he says. “I wish the government would understand how difficult it is in the summer especially. We rely on free school meals and then they’re gone over the school holidays. If it weren’t for services like this, I don’t know what we’d do. Lots of families in the area would starve.”
Since the beginning of the summer, the Unite Community Norfolk branch has raised in excess of £4,000 to continue with its food work through to the Christmas holidays – and with enough to help in other areas of Norwich and also Great Yarmouth.
But Brian says his local Unite Community branch has always emphasised their political approach. They intend to continue ramping up their campaigning for two key demands to tackle holiday hunger – for government funding to be provided so that free school meals continue over the school holidays, or alternatively for benefits payments to be raised to compensate parents for the loss of free school meals.
The Unite Community branch has also teamed up with the PCS union and the TUC to convene a special conference in November about Universal Credit and its invasion of the workplace. After all, of the 2.3m people now on Universal Credit, over a third of them work.
“Like ‘solidarity not charity’, our other slogan, ‘providing the assistance while preparing the resistance’ highlights that this is about a lot more than simply giving out sandwiches and snacks,” Brian explains.
Local Labour Co-operative councillor Chrissie Rumsby, who also volunteers for the project, agrees. “This project has totally evolved and will continue to evolve as we work together also to fight austerity,” she says. “A lot of people talk socialism but this is socialism in action.”
Donations to the Norwich Unite Community Lunches project can be made through its www.justgiving.com page
This feature first appeared in uniteWORKS, Autumn 2019