inside the birmingham food bank that's running out of food
David Barker reports from south Birmingham, where the B30 Foodbank has seen a 12% increase in food given out over the past year.
Photography Matt Brown via Flickr
Five years ago, a food bank opened across the road from my old primary school in Birmingham. I grew up here in the 90s, around the time the nearby MG Rover factory closed, leaving a lot of my classmate’s parents without jobs.
The financial crash of 2008 exacerbated the already high unemployment and stagnant wages in the area. After years of austerity -- cuts to the NHS, to the council, to the police and to social and child support services -- we hit breaking point, and B30 Foodbank opened in September 2013.
I go there to speak with volunteers on a Friday afternoon, towards the end of their shift. Operating out of the Cotteridge Church in south Birmingham, the B30 Foodbank opens twice weekly to hand out three-day food parcels to anyone in, what they call, “crisis”. Over the past year, 54% of those using the food bank did so due to benefit changes or delays, 15% as a result of debt and 31% because of low income. An example of the latter is a man in his early 20s, still wearing his Deliveroo uniform while collecting a food parcel.
Food parcels are meant to feed one person for three days. They provide vegetables, fruits, beans and soups (all tinned), as well as rice, pastas, sauces, sugar, tea bags and coffee. Looking at a parcel being made up, my mind mind goes quickly to what meals I know how to prepare that would somehow stretch the parcel out for three full days. I feel I could just about do it. Then the volunteers remind me that most users come already hungry and need the food for longer than the three days intended.
There’s a ‘help yourself’ table in the middle of the church hall. The food they offer on the day is mostly fresh stuff like sandwiches that won’t keep for the days between when the food bank opens, as well as drinks and biscuits. “The table is always cleared by the end of the day,” one volunteer tells me.
"The changes to the benefits structure were always bound to have an impact here, as they affect those most vulnerable in society, i.e. those most likely to visit a food bank anyway."
The volunteers here all blame universal credit for the food bank’s 12% increase in food given out over the past year. Universal credit will replace the old system of benefits for those on low income or out of work, and has been implemented over the past couple of years, with the rollout now expected to last several years more due to flaws in the system. The changes to the benefits structure were always bound to have an impact here, as they affect those most vulnerable in society, i.e. those most likely to visit a food bank anyway.
Alex, 26, works for The Project, a south Birmingham-based charity founded to help young people at risk of homelessness. The fact an entire charity was founded for something so specific should tell you how big the problem here is. Many people going to food banks or applying to universal credit will be referred to a JobCentre. Alex explains that the JobCentre will then say, “If you don’t have a computer but need to sign up for universal credit, go to a library”. However, all the libraries in this city have had their hours cut drastically, and people often need help, so claimants will end up coming to him to fill out their applications. Even then, it takes five and a half weeks to get a payment. I ask what people are expected to live on for that time, but Alex, like the government, doesn’t have an answer.
“Younger people in some ways benefit,” Alex says, “because they aren’t used to the old system and are more likely to be computer literate.” However, as so many people are phoning the Universal Credit Helpline because they can’t use a computer, the online claims aren’t being processed.
“Complicated systems don’t work well when you have people who tend to be vulnerable,” one volunteer adds.
"Families, particularly young ones, with children don’t just suffer from holiday hunger (children who would get free school meals needing to be fed) but also added expenses like childcare, clothes and entertainment."
Behind the hall is a large room lined with cupboards where I notice a copy of Bootstrap by Jack Monroe, a cookbook of budget recipes, left on one of the tables. Most cupboards are full of the foods people will need that day, but a couple contain hygiene products like toothpaste, soap and sanitary towels. Roger, who runs the food bank, tells me the volunteers offer these out when discussing the food, as people don’t know they’re available.
A volunteer named Helen cheers things up with stories about organising a holiday club during the summer. Families, particularly young ones, with children don’t just suffer from holiday hunger (children who would get free school meals needing to be fed) but also added expenses like childcare, clothes and entertainment. Helen organised breakfast, games, a bouncy castle, a magician, and then a lunch. They did it in on four Wednesdays over the summer, with the kitchens serving between 70 and 92 people -- all paid for by donations.
School uniforms have become more of an issue. Helen says, “Parents say, ‘old clothes will get them bullied; being hungry won’t’,” adding that school logos, house emblems, and so on, have made costs rise sharply. “They can’t just go to ASDA and get a generic uniform for a few pounds."
"As universal credit is rolled out, it feels inevitable that more and more people will start to come to food banks, adding to the pressures they already face."
As the last clients are going, the volunteers all pause to sing Happy Birthday to Roger, who’s organised B30 Foodbank since the beginning and will be 70 in a week. I look around and see that while a high proportion of users are young adults and children, almost all the volunteers are Roger’s age, and it’s hard not to wonder how much longer they can keep doing such an emotionally and physically exhausting job.
Alex, Roger and Helen all illustrate how a lack of affordable housing and jobs, combined with cuts to education, social care and the NHS, are entrenching the cycle of poverty that led to food banks being opened. As universal credit is rolled out, it feels inevitable that more and more people will start to come to food banks, adding to the pressures they already face. And while food bank volunteers will try to continue to provide the same service as best they can, there is another threat looming.
When they first opened, B30 Foodbank received enough donations to build up a large backstock. However, in the past 12 months they used the backstock, and gave out 1,571kg of food more than they received, with a similar deficit the year before. Their current stock is hard to gauge and constantly fluctuating, but even if this year is no worse than the one before, the food bank will eventually run out of food. There is no plan in place if, or rather when, that happens.
For more information on how you can support your local food bank, visit www.trusselltrust.org now.