Did you have dinner last night? Sadly, for one million people in the UK the answer to that questions is no. The UK is the sixth richest country in the world, yet more and more people are going hungry every year and are being forced to rely on food banks to feed their families. Since 2011, the number of people using food banks has gone up by 610 per cent.

A major factor contributing to the increase in the usage of food banks is that peoples’ incomes are staying the same whilst living costs are going up, and changes to benefits have also made a big impact. George Kirkpatrick of West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare says: ‘Charitable organisations like us either had to intervene and help people in need, or stand aside and let people starve. That isn’t a choice. We hoped this would be a temporary measure but we fear this is being encouraged as the new norm for delivering welfare to the destitute’.

People can attend food banks as an emergency stopgap, and in any one visit they can only be provided with three days’ worth of food. Poverty and Social Exclusion UK says: ‘In households which cannot afford an adequate diet for their children, 93 per cent have at least one adult who ‘skimps’ on their own food to try to protect the children. Half a million children are not adequately fed in the UK today, not as a result of negligence but due to a lack of money’.

‘ReadiFood’ provides emergency food parcels to families and individuals across the town of Reading. Alison Peyton, the coordinator of the busy food bank, reveals how the system works and the positive effect that the charity’s work is having on peoples’ lives.

Are people referred to you by other organisations?

Yes, the majority of the food parcels are referred – with about 5 per cent being phone calls directly to us. We impress upon the callers that they need to find a referral because the situation is, if someone has lost their home, we can give them food but that’s not going to solve their housing issue. If they’ve got financial problems, we will point them towards other agencies and charities that help with debts and can take on debt management for them. We work very closely in debt plans with those agencies and that has a twofold effect of reducing stress for that person, in that their debt is being managed and they know they have still got access to food for that time.

Have you seen an increase in the number of people using your service in the past few years?

I’ve run the service for four years now. When I started we probably were doing about 30 parcels a week, by the second Christmas we were doing 70 to 80 parcels a week, by the end of the third year we had pushed over 100 a week and we’ve remained at that level. Now we do 120 parcels a week which is a fourfold increase, mainly due to the big jump in 2013 due to the removal of crisis loans. They were no longer accessible from the Jobcentre and so local governments had to provide schemes, and part of the Reading scheme was that people can be referred for a food parcel – but that only accounts for a maximum of 15 parcels a week, so there is still genuinely a huge increase of people who are just finding it far more difficult to cope.

Have changes to benefits also had an impact?

A lot more benefits are sanctioned, so that’s a situation we assist with. There seems to be a lot more waiting for benefits when they are first claimed or if there is a change. Simply moving house can stop your benefits for three weeks which I find unacceptable. If a mum and some kids have got to move home and just having to put a change of address into the Work and Pensions service who administer benefits, I don’t see the need to stop the payments: it is false economy. A year ago, half the parcels every week were over disability issues and people having their benefit levels changed. When this particular economic crisis is over and people have got more jobs, we will still be here but at a lower level.

How does the work that your food bank does have a positive impact on someone’s life?

It just takes a weight off people’s minds. It gives them strength to try and cope with other things they’ve got to cope with. I had a woman yesterday who lost where she was living. She moved into a bedsit with her little boy and somebody kept stealing her food. She said that morning that her little boy’s breakfast had gone and there was no food for him. When she saw me give the little boy a box of cereal she just burst into tears, because she didn’t know otherwise how they were going to have any food all weekend. It’s shocking to think that’s how we live in 2014.

How can people help support the food bank?

By continuing to donate food and if you see us in a supermarket collection, all we’re asking for is one tin of food or one bag of rice, its not very much, you can spend less than a pound. You can make financial donations, but the simplest thing is to keep buying us some food. Also, we do have a need for more volunteers. It’s very rewarding when you see people and all you do is hand them a couple of carrier bags of food over, and they are so thankful and happy. It’s a very simple way to help people and they really appreciate it.

A national campaign has been launched by the youth charity vInspired, through their Team v leadership programme, to raise awareness about the realities facing people in food poverty and galvanising the public to support food aid initiatives. Find out more about how you can get involved at www.vinspired.com/beyond-food

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