Crisis of hunger

As food bank use skyrockets amid the pandemic, Unite calls for urgent welfare system reform

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The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a crisis of hunger, as new figures from the Trussell Trust food bank network show a surge in demand for food parcels since the pandemic began.  

The latest data from the Trussell Trust, the largest network of food banks in the UK, saw a record 47 per cent increase in need between April in September, compared to the same period last year, building further on record breaking demand in 2019.

The Trust said that in the first six months of the pandemic, it distributed 1.2m emergency food parcels, nearly half a million of which went to families with children. This equates to more than 2,600 food parcels being distributed to children each and every day between April and September.

April was the Trust’s busiest month this year, with a 59 per cent increase in demand compared to same month last year.

As significant as these figures are, the Trussell Trust warned that the number of food parcels they handed out were likely just the tip of the iceberg, because they don’t account for the significant food aid from other charities, local mutual aid groups, and various campaigns such as those led by Unite Community branches that sprang into action when the pandemic first hit.

The surge in demand has been fuelled by a massive increase in job losses amid the pandemic, with Universal Credit falling far short of what’s needed to keep people afloat. There has been a huge increase in the ‘newly hungry’ – people who before the pandemic were on stable, middle incomes but have been thrust into poverty once they lost their jobs.

Speaking to the Guardian, Andrew Forsey, national director of Feeding Britain, a UK food aid charity, explained, “We now see families at food banks who before the pandemic were able to pay their bills and still be comfortable enough to put food on the table. For the first time in many years that is no longer the case.”

Top of the agenda

Food and child poverty has risen to the top of the national agenda, in large part thanks to campaigning by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who virtually single-handedly forced the government into a U-turn over free school meals over the summer the holidays.

Rashford pushed for another extension of free school meals last month to ensure children who are in need don’t go without over the half-term and Christmas holidays and beyond into school holidays next year.

Labour, which fully backed Rashford’s calls, forced a vote on the issue — all Tory MPs save five infamously voted against the extension. But weeks later, amid a backlash from the public, prime minister Boris Johnson this month phoned Rashford and told him that the government would be making £170m available to local councils to help families most in need – in yet another U-turn in all but name.

Commenting on the latest rise in demand for food banks, Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie said, “Throughout 2020, communities across the country have stepped in to provide vital support to people left without enough money. Volunteers in food banks have been working hard under extremely difficult circumstances to make sure support is there for people struggling to afford essentials. But it’s not right that any of us are forced to a charity for food, at any time of year.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve seen incredible compassion and concern for people facing hunger following Marcus Rashford’s brilliant campaigning,” she added. “And it’s hugely welcome to see the government build on steps already taken by providing significant new funding for local councils in England. This vital local support must work in coordination with a national welfare system that is strong enough to act as a lifeline to anyone struggling to afford the essentials.

“This pandemic has shown the unexpected can hit us suddenly, with devastating consequences for people’s lives,” Revie continued. “But it’s also shown we can make huge changes to the way we live and look after each other. It’s shown that when we come together to push for change, the government responds.”

Reform Universal Credit call

The Trussell Trust is calling on the government to make immediate changes to the benefit system to ensure more money is kept in the pockets of those who need it most so that they don’t fall through the cracks.

These changes include ensuring the £20-a-week rise in Universal Credit which was imposed at the beginning of the pandemic is locked in and that those currently excluded from the UC uplift, such as those on legacy benefits, are included. The food bank network has also called on the government to suspend punitive and cruel benefit debt deductions until a fairer repayments system can be devised.

The TUC has also this week highlighted the failures of the current benefit system – including the five-week wait for first Universal Credit payments which has seen so many people plunged into hardship and debt.

 A survey carried out by the TUC of Universal Credit claimants found that the vast majority – 71 per cent – found the five week wait to be problematic. Only one in 10 people who had to endure the five-week wait to receive their first Universal Credit payment said they were able to cope.

Unite has long been at the forefront in the fight against food poverty, with Unite Community branches playing a leading role in their local communities before and since the pandemic began. Last week, UniteLIVE highlighted the work of a Unite Community in Northern Ireland, which has organised several initiatives to help families in need.

Unite has also launched its union-wide Christmas Appeal initiative, where both industrial and Community members are mobilising to donate to local food banks, start collections and ask their employers to get involved as well.

Commenting on the latest Trussell Trust figures, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said, “Even before the pandemic, food bank usage under the Tories’ merciless attacks on the social safety net had rocketed. For years, Unite Community activists across the UK have been witness to desperate families being punished by a welfare system that left them unable to feed their children or pay for even the most basic of necessities.

“The government, almost exclusively made up of politicians lucky enough to have never gone through the indignities of claiming benefits, have been content to ignore the spiralling child poverty and profound social deprivation their policies have unleashed,” he added. “It shames our country that in 21st Century Britain, charities and food banks are having to step in because our government has washed its hands of responsibility for those most in need of help.

“The figures released today by the Trussell Trust, showing that food bank usage has increased by 47 per cent between April and September, are a stark indicator of how much worse things have become during the pandemic. The system wasn’t fit for purpose before Covid-19 and has completely failed as a defence against the terrible toll the virus has enacted on those who can least afford it. If this wasn’t the case, Boris Johnson would not have needed to extend free school meals during the holidays until Christmas 2021.

“The coronavirus has thrown countless workers onto the mercies of Universal Credit and other benefits and thousands more will follow before the crisis is over,” Turner went on to say. “In its current form, the welfare system is a trap that needlessly perpetuates poverty and hopelessness. The system, and the punitive approach it is based on, are in need of comprehensive reform. As a priority and at the very least, ministers must end the five weeks wait for Universal Credit payments.

“As well as continuing to pressure the government to fix the country’s broken social security system, this winter Unite is also running a Christmas appeal to help struggling families by raising funds and donations for local food banks and other grassroots charities.”

You can find out more and how you can help on our Christmas Appeal web page here.

By Hajera Blagg

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