Foodbanks and food parcels have become an established part of communities across the UK. Many communities need them to survive the deep cuts to welfare, and some communities who run them are 'doing their bit for the poor as part of the Big Society'. But what experiences have tenants had with them? Is it a free meal, as Lord Freud describes it, or is there a real need? A tenant living in Blaenau Gwent told me about the food parcels that arrive at their local Community Centre every other week. 'It’s chaos, like a scene from Africa. Everyone runs out and opens up the packages, trying to get the best things. You know, sweets and stuff.' There's no assessment of need and the whole thing lives up to the free meal stereotype. Another tenant tells me of having to pray before receiving a parcel, as most foodbanks are run by religious organisations. Finally, a tenant asks me, ‘What would you do with 12 bottles of tomato ketchup with a hint of balsamic vinegar?’ Ideas on a postcard? Contrary to Zoe Williams' belief, food parcels do contain luxuries. Champagne is the most expensive product I’ve been told about.
The reasons for increasing use of foodbanks have been cited as a change in benefit, a sanction or a delay, or use of payday loans. However, these have all been around for several years now, therefore the recent welfare reforms are not the reason. The problem lies with benefit take up, application and processing. Payday loans are another problem altogether. Welfare reform is exacerbating these reasons for use, and this is set to get worse with possible 7 week delays for Universal Credit payments which will see the desperate Friday become a desperate week. Weekly or fortnightly payments often leave households in desperate financial situations in the last days between payments, and stories of parents not eating on a day or weekend prior to payment is common. However, when monthly UC payments start these days will accumulate into the 4th week, and there is a real danger of parents trying to go several days without food. Food parcels will therefore become an essential need for many.
One of the reasons UC is being rolled out is to increase personal responsibility of finances and to combat the 'I don't pay rent' belief. However, the ever increasing use of food parcels is creating the same problem. Last month, I heard the phrase ‘I don’t buy food, I get one of those voucher things’ for the first time when asking someone about their expenditure on food. What Lord Freud doesn't understand is that changes to welfare benefits are not recognised by claimants in the same way that policy makers see them. Advice agencies used to assist people in desperate need to claim a crisis loan or community care grant, but now they pass on a food voucher. Has the social fund been replaced by foodbanks? Claimants are beginning to believe so and are therefore seeing food as another entitlement. 'I don't buy food'.
Senior Money Adviser