HEAT OR EAT: 'People are still living in poverty', says food bank coordinator

Ever more people across Central Lancashire are being swallowed into a blackhole of food poverty as living costs rise and wages remain stagnant.

By Laura Longworth
Wednesday, 2nd February 2022, 3:57 pm
Updated Wednesday, 2nd February 2022, 3:58 pm

With food prices increasing and household energy bills facing an imminent rise, many people are finding it harder to make ends meet.

The sheer number of people struggling can be seen in the increased demand for support from food banks. The Post spoke to two volunteers who report seeing both a larger number of new faces turning to them for help, and an alarming drop in community donations.

One of those services is New Day Church Food Bank in Lostock Hall, which delivered an astonishing 5,352 bags of food last year, providing 90,984 meals, according to its latest figures. Some 47 percent of its total referrals were for families while 45 percent were for singles, reveals the food bank's coordinator.

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Wendy Hodgson, volunteer coordinator at New Day Church Food Bank in Lostock Hall.

A staggering 49 percent of its referrals for the year were new, Wendy Hodgson claims. However, she adds that weekly bags being delivered dropped from around 125 in January to around 80 in December as people began to access services opening up closer to home following an ease in Covid-19 restrictions.

Figures then spiked at 132 bags during the Christmas week, following the £20 cut in Universal Credit.

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And with rising prices, Wendy says more single people have turned to them in the past three months due to a mix of debt issues.

She said: “There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment. We’re going to see more challenges with the end of fixed rates. People are seeing big hikes in prices and big changes in their disposable income. If they get an unexpected bill, they’re just one pay packet away from [poverty] as there’s nothing in the reserves for them. We’re supporting people who might have never dreamed of using a food bank but they have exhausted everything, used up their overdraft and credit cards, and there’s nothing else they can do.”

The over 75s made up 12 percent of last year’s referrals, according to Wendy, who said: “It’s quite scary. They find their pensions are not lasting as much as before. Some of that links back to energy bills and the cost of living but they don’t have a big support network as families aren’t living as close so it’s not as easy to support them.”

Many young people are also struggling, with some 19 percent of referrals being aged 16 to 25.

The volunteer said: “They’ve been homeless or couch surfing and they’re trying to get into their first property. Some are leaving care or there’s been a breakdown in family relationships. That’s been one of the sad things - we’ve seen so much sofa surfing."

New Day works with multiple agencies to signpost people to additional support for housing and debt, with Wendy saying: “As a local food bank, we’re linking up with the council and charities, and without those links, situations don’t change. What’s been encouraging is we’re seeing the vast majority of people with debts and arrears are now receiving support, whereas 12 months ago they weren’t.”

She adds that many homeless youths are also “being supported and getting themselves established.”

Still, the demand for food banks remains throughout South Ribble, with New Day now offering around 70 bags of food.

Also feeling the pressure is the Community Network Outreach Service (CNOS) in Dunkirk Lane, Leyland, which runs a free community fridge giving away surplus supermarket stock to “top up” people’s weekly shop.

Co-ordinator Sophie Wilding says 85 percent of people relying on their services are from low-income families.

Sophie said: “It’s a myth that it’s always people on benefits who use food banks. Only a small percentage of people are actually on benefits.

“We’ve got a lot of new faces with the same sort of story: energy bill rises; wages changing; redundancies; zero-hour contracts; not getting full pay if they’re self-isolating because of Covid.

“A lot of people are concerned about the imminent rises in energy bills. We’ve seen elderly people saying they’re not putting the heating on and are instead using blankets and extra layers to keep warm.”

To help ease their anxieties, Sophie’s team handed out Winter Warmer packs of essential items like hats, scarves, socks, thermal mugs, packets of soup and information about saving energy.

While demand for their services has increased, the team faces a decrease in community support. They once relied on nightly donations of end-of-line stock from Co-op Mosside, and weekly collections from Aldi Leyland, Tesco Leyland and Tesco Buckshaw.

The service initially fed the public six days a week but Sophie has been forced to cut its opening hours in half in the past three to four months due to a lack of donations.

Sophie said: “We are now operating three days a week. We could see it slowly dwindling after Christmas and I said to the volunteers that there’s no point in us being open that often when we have nothing there to offer to people. At least we know we can now offer something decent three days a week.

“There’s nothing worse than saying to people we only have bread and turning them away, especially as it takes a lot out of people to come to us.

“We were also going out to supermarkets seven days a week and might only get around five packets of bread.”

Also affected by a dramatic drop in donations in the past year is CNOS’ community shop, which offers users 10 daily essential items like tinned food, cereals or cleaning supplies for £2.50, thanks to support from charity FareShare.

But Sophie says the charity is struggling to get hold of many basic necessities, adding: “I think FareShare has been hammered. Some of the things we have been getting through each week have been crazy and really random. We used to get a really nice mix [of items] but we’ve been getting things like 10 boxes of apples, five boxes of spreadable cheese and loads of tins of borlotti beans.”

To arrange a donation of essential items to New Day Church Food Bank, please call the team on 01772 461454 or 07928 335679 or visit the church building from Monday to Thursday between 9am and 12-30pm.

To find out ways to support the Community Network Outreach Service, search for the group on Facebook.