'Struggling families cannot be made to pay for the crisis'
As food bank use skyrockets, Unite Community Norfolk branch continues wth holiday hunger project
The coronavirus crisis has sparked a huge demand for emergency food supplies, with desperate families not having anywhere else to turn to meet their most basic needs.
The Trussell Trust, the largest network of food banks in the UK, reported last week that it faced its busiest ever period in its history, with 81 per cent more emergency food parcels handed out in the first two weeks of March.
Likewise, the Independent Food Aid Network reported a massive increase in demand for its food parcels, up 59 per cent between February and March – 17 times more than the same period last year.
A number of food bank networks and organisations such as the Child Action Poverty Group (CPAG) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have jointly expressed alarm over the desperate situation a rising number of families have found themselves in amid the Covid-19 epidemic.
The organisations have highlighted that families with children face the greatest threat of destitution.
“We need targeted support for children if we are to shield them from poverty,” said CPAG chief executive Alison Graham. “Raising the level of all benefits for children would be the most effective way of getting support to families quickly.”
Acting director of JRF Helen Barnard added, “It’s simply not right that so many more people are having to turn to food banks because they are unable to meet their basic costs.
“We all want to help each other weather this storm, but families with children are being particularly hard hit and do not have the lifeline they need to stay afloat.”
‘Queue 100 yards long’
Unite Community Norfolk branch secretary Brian Green is no stranger to the desperation families with children face – even before the coronavirus epidemic hit.
He and his Unite Community branch have for the last three years run a holiday hunger project in Norwich where they provide hundreds of packed lunches for children and families in need during the school holidays with support from other local organisations like the Phoenix Community Centre. All children accompanied by parents have been welcomed, no questions asked.
While demand for the Unite Community lunches has always been significant, the Easter holidays last month saw a massive queue of families with children coming to collect the lunches as well as weekend hampers of food and other essential items the project now provides.
“Our experience over the Easter holidays was a story of two halves,” Brian explained. “Vouchers for free school meals, which the government was supposed to issue to families amid school closures, were delayed by two to three weeks in areas throughout the country, including in Norwich.
“So that first week of the Easter holidays the demand for our lunches was massive. We gave out 200 packed lunches in the first day alone – we had a queue that was 100 yards long. By the end of the week, the vouchers were finally issued so things calmed down a bit. Still we gave out over 1,500 lunches over the Easter holidays – that’s more than double compared to last Easter.”
Beyond the school holidays, every Friday the Unite Community project provides weekend hampers of food to local schools to distribute to families in need with help from food banks, a local Labour councillor and the FareShare charity. Unite Community will also be giving out lunches over the bank holiday on Friday (May 8).
‘We don’t ask questions’
Brian noted that the last few weeks has been exceptionally hard on families and said he questioned whether food parcels being delivered by councils amid the coronavirus crisis were fit for purpose for many families.
“Individual families have to request the council-provided food parcels – this can be a very challenging experience for those who do not have internet access, or who do not want to been to be asking for food.
“In New York for example, the National Guard has distributed food through collection points across the city to anyone who needs it – we believe that anonymity is essential in reaching out to communities and families who fall through the cracks and gaining their trust. That’s why our project is set up the way it is – we don’t ask any questions.”
Now, the biggest challenge for the Unite Community Norfolk holiday hunger project is fundraising at a time when union branches are not operating and meeting as they normally do.
“We have developed a very good reputation in the area and have become totally embedded in our community. We’ve received donations, for example, from the local county council. Still we have lots of work to do on fundraising and the summer holidays is what worries us most.”
‘Extend government support call’
As the government has signaled that it will begin to ease the lockdown soon, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced earlier this week that he intends to wind down the state wage subsidy programme, which has kept millions of families afloat amid the crisis, from July.
“This is why the summer holidays will be so challenging – the government is determined to re-open the economy and in so doing invite a second wave of the virus. At the same time they have suggested they will not be extending the support people need to get through this crisis. It’s very worrying – our summer holidays project will be a huge undertaking.”
As Unite Community Norfolk braces itself for an even bigger rise in demand for its holiday hunger lunches, Brian says they are calling on the government to not let families fall through the cracks.
“We are calling for the government to continue the free school meals vouchers scheme for parents and at the very least a three month extension of the furlough scheme. There can be no clawing back of benefits. We are at a vital juncture now as we try to find our way and ordinary families who are struggling to feed their children cannot be the ones to pay for this crisis.”
You can find out more about the Unite Community Norfolk project on their Facebook page here. If you would like to make a donation to the project, donations can be sent to the following bank details: UNITE LE/00001 COMMUNITY NORFOLK BRANCH, Sort code: 60-83-01, Account number: 20356938.
By Hajera Blagg