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Food bank Britain: life below the line

The use of food banks has tripled in 12 months, as even people in work struggle to feed themselves and their families

"The area does look affluent," agrees Daphine Aikens, who has run the operation for three years and is just one of the thousands of volunteers in this country now helping to operate food banks. "But we're surrounded by social housing and people come to us from all over the borough." This food bank is one of 350 run nationwide by the church-based charity the Trussell Trust, which is opening them at the rate of three a week. It operates on a voucher system. To get a parcel of three days' free food, applicants must first be referred by a recognised agency: the local jobcentre, for example, the Citizens Advice Bureau or their GP, which hands out the vouchers. Under the trust's rules, nobody can have more than three vouchers in a row. The charity says it wants to provide breathing space for those in acute need, rather than become a solution to a chronic problem.

In the second quarter of this year, she says, they saw a 250% increase compared to the same period last year. Her own experience is backed up by nationwide research. A report, co-written by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, that was released in May found that 500,000 people in Britain had resorted to food banks to feed themselves this year, three times more than in the previous 12 months. Campaigners are certain they know why it's happening. The complex calculus of modern living and expenditure is no longer adding up.

Between 2000 and 2011, food prices rose by 43%, while general prices rose by 28% and incomes stagnated or even fell. If you're on a low income, food price rises have simply been amplified. On top of that have come draconian changes to the benefits rules, combined with infuriating administrative incompetency.

Aikens admits that coming to a place like this is not easy for many. "People are reticent," she says. "We give the food freely but they have to be prepared to walk over the threshold and say I need help." Does she ever despair at the problems people get themselves into? "I constantly say that we mustn't be judgmental. I think a place like this is about the basic imperative of caring. A civilised society cares about its most vulnerable members."

Waiting quietly at a table in the reception area is Debra Lonergan, mother of three teenage boys, who is also her husband's full-time carer. The benefits agency has told her that they have just noticed she was overpaid £600 back in 2009 so they are stopping her money for a month. "I've been telling them I'd know if I'd received an extra £600," she says, desperately. "I don't owe them anything." She is working to get the problem sorted, but for now she has a practical issue. There's not enough food in the house to keep the kids fed. Her GP gave her the Trussell Trust voucher. "This is my first time at a food bank. It's daunting. I didn't know what to expect. I had the image of queuing up Russian style, but it wasn't like that." Instead, each applicant sits down with a volunteer who offers them a cup of tea and goes through that list of exactly what they need. Debra tells me she wants to work, is desperate to, but that home circumstances just make it impossible.

Aikens agrees. People are quick to make assumptions. She has given talks in fee-paying schools and recognised kids in the assemblies, whose family have sought help from the food bank. "Maybe the kids have a scholarship for the fees but there's no money at home for food," she says. "We have a number of people who come here who are in full-time work but they just don't have enough."

Real Aid also run a food bank in nearby Bridlington aimed specifically at working families. "Working families find it harder to come and ask for help," Killick says. "Generally, they've not been in this situation before." The solution: they charge a small fee for the food. "Charging £1.50 can make it easier." For that they may get upwards of £15 worth of food, but it feels less like charity and more like an equitable exchange. It gives the lie to Lord Freud's claim of a "something for nothing" culture.

Killick shows me round the warehouse, stacked with pallets of food liberated from supermarkets and producers. They have a local farmer who sends them half a tonne of potatoes every week, a donation worth £250. Other stuff comes from Asda's national distribution centre in Wakefield. In all they shift around 400 tonnes of food a year. Not that getting hold of it is always easy. Big players like the Trussell Trust or the waste food charity FareShare have access to some of the biggest supplies. It seems the food bank world is becoming crowded. "It's not so much competition as protectionism. We'll approach a company for donations and they'll say they're already giving to another organisation." He tells me that a supermarket where they once did a collection received a complaint from a much larger charity which thought that was their pitch.

We can argue about the validity of that argument, and politicians and experts from all parts of the spectrum often do. But anyone travelling across the landscape of food banks in Britain today, as I have, will quickly come to the same conclusion. This isn't just about problems with a broken benefits system, however acute they may be. It's also about working people who have tried their best to make ends meet. It is about people who believe in paying their way but who are now so unable to do so they need free food.

 意図的なのかどうか判りませんが、この記事の中でインタヴューを受けている人たち(写真が掲載されている)は皆白人。先日みてきたらウリィの展覧会で読んだ1966年の批評に書かれていた、「the lack of capital investment at home」という事象は、まさに21世紀の白人労働者階級家庭に当てはまるように思います。






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