Monday, 12 October 2015

Food Banks - A Necessary addition to the a Welfare Landscape

One million people were given emergency food Provision in the UK last year.

Contrary to popular belief this is noting the way of regular handouts. Clients are allowed three food parcels in a rolling six month period, they have to be assessed and referred to qualify for a parcel. This BBC Documentary follows several unfortunate souls over a period of weeks linked by visits to the same Dundee food bank and shows the trials many people face in today's modern austerity.

The first thing I realised about the Dundee food bank is the credit that  it is to the youth of today. Scottish co-ordinator  Ewen is 29 and started volunteering at the food bank at 19. Opened ten years ago by the Trussel Trust, who administer 400 Food banks across the UK, this Dundee centre is a lifeline for the community. Ewan oversees the 40 food banks in Scotland. The numbers being referred are ever increasing in  number. Food poverty is a reality in the UK today.

Volunteer Robbie is also 19. He studies full time, works part time and because he cannot give food donations on his meagre student income, gives of his time instead. He says people are only ever two pay cheques away from food poverty. He is also actively involved in obtaining food donations, even roping his mother in to help at a drive in a local Tesco store to get donations of the staples most needed to make up an adequate food parcel for a person in crisis.

Robbie is eventually moving on to a role with Police Scotland, but I suspect his social conscience and his sound understanding of the issues affecting Dundee will place him in good stead to be a successful Policeman. He is grateful that when he opens a cupboard that there is food inside and he realises that often , there is nothing in those of the Food bank clients. To be so socially aware at so young an age is a boon.

Stephen and his pal Michael

 Stephen has been using food banks ten years. He is collecting his last parcel for a while.

His problems in  life started when he found his mother dead on Xmas day in  2005. Some weeks later, his father threw him out and he started living in a tent on a golf course. He turned to Heroin, but now is trying to pull himself out of those years. He and friend Michael bring in a sizeable donation from a lady whilst waiting for Stephen's parcel. Every morsel of food comes from public donations. Stephen and Michael live together in Homeless accommodation. 

Sometimes people in hostels have no utensils , so often Food banks have to tailor food round the facilities at client's disposal, so Ready meals, micro or instant meals any be the only answer. Michael and Stephen get a post Christmas treat, some quality street and mince pies. They decide to to go on the "The Co" sharing their benefit money equally every time they are issued a payment, ensuring they can both eat and have Clean clothes. They seem a little over concerned about the state of their trainers, but I suppose homelessness does not stop consumerism despite their position of relative poverty.

Some days later we learn that Michael as failed to live up to his promise to share with Stephen so he is now without a penny because he has no food as despite beating the Heroin he is a alcoholic.  He can be drinking five bottles of wine a day, which at about three pounds a bottle from the local Lidl's ate up his money.He has used up his three vouchers for this rolling six month period and  is going to have to appeal for another food parcel. The Maxwell centre have given him advice on where to seek support for his alcohol addiction. Access to additional food parcels may be determined on whether he is making attempts to better his situation.

Feeling bad, Michael attempts to draw some money owing to him from the Benefits Agency but for the second day running they have not given him what he is due so  now both men are both left cash poor because of an administrative foul up. 

A few weeks later, Michael's luck does seem to change for the better when he and his Girlfriend are given some temporary accommodation in a furnished flat. He says he has seen Stephen out and about but after the fall out they rarely see each other and when they do Stephen is invariably drunk.

When the crew catch up with him, Stephen is Hungry and working his way through two bottles of Lidls Sherry. He has taken no steps to address his alcoholism. He has not returned to the Food banks and he  thinks he may have to start begging on the street .

Billy and Jack

Billy is a single father who was made redundant some two years previously. He is awaiting benefits again after finishing a short term contract casual work over the Christmas period and after seeing his Housing Officer in regards to Rent Arrears, he was  referred to the FoodBank. He says rather shamefully that he only just managed to scrape the scraped pennies for  Jack's snack at nursery. The overriding reaction to the bags he is given, is supreme Gratitude. 

Currently spending £4 a day on gas to heat his house, he says sometimes they both have to sit under duvets in the winter. He is actively seeking work to support himself. He had worked in medical sales for ten years prior to before being made redundant. More often than not, he does not get work because he is overqualified!  Working as a temp had actually left him worse off . The living wage is £7.85 an hour outside London. The temp job was not bringing that so his rent had got into arrears. 

There has been a four hundred percent increase in demand for Food bank services, increased fuel costs and insecure employment prospects have both contributed. One in four children in Dundee live under poverty line. 

Five weeks after being laid off from the call centre Billy treats Jack with some pound land  paints as he has finally been in receipt of benefit. He is  still applying for menial jobs and still being unsuccessful because he is over qualified.

As Jack is under five and not yet at school, Billy is claiming Income support. Once at school age this will change to job seekers allowance. This will mean Billy may well be forced to accept a job despite it not covering his rent or other incidentals to get him off the books and off the figures.

Even Ewan and family had to seek assistance themselves when his wage was cut and his working week reduced from five days to three. His wife says they did despair, but he at least can say with honesty "I  know how it feels" when people arrive after a sanction, benefit cut or delay.

Billy applies for a Management Training programme and is quietly optimistic. This is his First full time  job opportunity in a year. Sadly he is unable to get it, there are much younger candidates which he suspects had a bearing,but he still manages to give Jack a nice fifth Birthday. He trades in an old WII machine to pay for a PlayStation 3 and some games laying out only £1 to secure it. 

Since filming Billy has secured a full time job and is saving to give Jack a proper Holiday.


Tina had her Benefit money stopped for 4 weeks because she failed to attend an appointment. The Job centre she was supposed to attend had no record of he phone call saying she would not be there, so a sanction was placed on he payment. All food bank recipients have to be referred by a school,  Doctor or  social services.  Tina visits the Maxwell centre, a social inclusion program  trying to reduce food poverty to see if she can be referred.

Missing an appointment is the number one reason for a sanction  on Benefits and the period can be anywhere from four to twenty six weeks. I agree with Ewan in his view that while people should not be given benefits if they fail to engage in the process when the conditions of that very welfare provision is to actively seek work, but sanctions appear to be being applied for longer than necessary or even unfairly in an attempt to reduce the national burden of Benefits. The Food banks  have to fill that void.

Three months previously Tina had been sanctioned for a five week period. At that point she was caught shoplifting. Literally taking the food to keep herself and her children from starving. She knew all the staff and it was really mortifying for her. In general shoplifting in Scotland is in decline but, Stealing to eat is actually on the rise. Ewan feels that sanctions are actually harming the children of claimants whose whole survival is reliant on their parent's ability to provide adequate food as they have no recourse to an income themselves.


After letting a friend stay at his house,Charlie had found her slumped with a needle in her groin. When he attempted to rouse her, she inflicted needle stick injuries into his groin and neck. He still had the Needle end in his neck, afraid if he pulled it out he might bleed profusely. He attends Hospital to have it removed. She stole his food, money and ransacked his flat. He has joint custody of  eight year old son so the have given enough to last them both a few days until his benefits come in at the end of the week.

He has had a rough time of it. His flat was trashed by his heroin addict friend, his tv destroyed, she had  left faeces on the floor. Now living in the shadow of the potential that he has been infected by a blood borne disease he is just thankful he has food to feed his son.  

In a moment of despair he had almost attempted suicide, only the thought of his child and how it would affect his mother in the block opposite ; halting his running jump towards his open window several stories up.

One days later, we learn Charlie has been robbed again. All his food cupboards have been ransacked. The keys taken after the he initial disagreement or so he thinks. He cannot even afford to change the locks so now cannot have his son to stay for a couple of days. He knows that an eight year old  could not survive on the little he has.

Charlie eventually gets the alarming news that he has contracted Hepatitis C after the needle attack and is undergoing some intensive treatment to try to combat he virus. It is thought he will be clear in a few weeks He has a very positive outlook considering the misfortunes that have befallen him.


Muirfied Contracts and Construction had gone into Administration overnight so when Richard arrived for work, he was told not to sign in and that he would not be paid for his last week's work or the few days he had worked that week, thus leaving him down by £500 through no fault at all of his own. He and One Hundred others are now potentially New food Bank clients. Meaning the Food banks will be strained to cover demand in the immediate aftermath and to sustain food parcels as people adjust to their changing financial status.

Richard has three children so goes to the Maxwell Centre for a referral.


Next to seek a referral is Gaz. He is worried about more than himself and his girlfriend as he has two dogs at home too. He has been feeding them on Dog mixer, veg and bistro Gravy. He himself has only had a bowl of lentil soup since the previous morning.The couple find themselves in debt because of the student debts from Becca's Psychology Degree. Gaz says almost all his Benefits had been swallowed by an unusually high Virgin phone bill.

He is mildly annoyed that he was unaware of the bank until now. It is only a very short walk from his home. He explained that he had a Breakdown which had prevented him from working. He been working a seventy to eighty hour week as chef and trying to support both himself and Becca. They are given Five bags, including four cans of dog food. He is amazed by how much he is given. Cassie and Lexi their beloved dogs get  a proper meal at last.

Gaz receives Employment Allowance for his mental health issues. Becca thinks that there is a lot of emotional effects of being ill on Social welfare, that you become caught in a vicious cycle where you do not have the confidence to apply for work and  as time goes on as you feel unable to do a job and become worn down by stigma, so when opportunities arise, people are too scared to try. She feels more effort should be made to build people up again so they have the tools available to take the plunge back into working. She has just got part time work, so is hoping their situation will improve.

Since filming, Gaz has got some chef work at a restaurant in Dundee and Becca is working at Dundee University.

This was a revealing and thought provoking documentary and it made me want to  add a few tins to the collection point in my local Supermarket. It proved to me that the Lion share of the people forced to attend are deserving and a victim of circumstance rather than scroungers,shirkers and folk living off the state because they just cannot be bothered to try to be an active member of society.

This cause will be the nub of my Winter Giving Drive this year.

1 comment:

  1. Emma, this is a wonderful right up. I myself work in a public library, where many unfortunate people need a great deal of help in many ways, including food assistance. Most of these people are very very similar to the people in your essay.
    Thank you for sharing this with the public.