Jeremy Ravn is network manager of the UK’s foodbank network, which is run by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity based in Salisbury. The organisation provides emergency food relief to people in crisis and has just released figures showing it helped a record number of people in the year to April 2009. Its network of 40 foodbanks around the UK, based mainly in the South West of England, the Midlands, Wales and Scotland, helped 24,000 people in 2008/9 compared to 14,000 in the 2007/8 – a 71 per cent increase. This was partly due to 14 new projects being launched during the period but also – sadly – because of growing demand during the recession.
“People come into crisis often because there is a short-term money problem,” explains Ravn. “They have to make a choice between paying a bill and eating, so they go without food.” Through its projects, the charity provides clients with non-perishable food parcels, a hot meal and referral to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Social Services and debt advice agencies. “Let’s not knock the welfare state,” he says when I ask him why the government can’t provide these services. “But it can’t react quickly enough. If you lose your job and you’re on a low income and don’t have any savings or credit [you may struggle]. The Jobcentre crisis loan helpline should provide you with the ability to drawn down money on future benefits, but it’s overwhelmed. You can be on hold for 2 hours. Many of our clients are between a rock and a hard place.”
The foodbank is seeing many people suffering because of the recession. “In places like Swindon and Gloucester where industries are struggling, people have been laid off and others are often on reduced wages. They’re told – ‘Don’t come back to work but here’s a retainer’. But people’s costs don’t come down immediately and going to Social Services takes time, plus many of them can’t claim if they’re still earning something.”
Ravn is also seeing many clients with debt problems. “A lot of people are struggling to meet their debt repayments. These people are under a lot of pressure. Some areas of the population have seen their mortgage payments fall, but it’s the low income people living in social housing or renting [who are experiencing difficulties].”
Many people who visit a foodbank centre are in despair. “A lot of them are in bits,” Ravn admits. “They breakdown and cry because they don’t know what to do and because finally somebody is giving them a listening ear. It’s a bit more than just food that we provide. It’s ‘food plus’. We give them a hot meal as well as the food relief and try to link them with other agencies that can help get them out of the situation.”
The charity’s vision is to see a foodbank in every UK town. But it receives zero government funding and relies on donations from individuals, which are hard to come by in the credit crunch. “The food is provided by local people and we’ve seldom had a problem collecting it,” he says. “People are more aware that others are suffering in the recession. But we are struggling for money donations. Food is not the issue – it’s staff costs, heating and lighting etc.”
After talking to Jeremy Ravn, I am hugely impressed by this resource and the fact that people are prepared to give up their time to help others in this way. But I can’t help feeling sad and angry that we should need it at all in the 21st Century and in a supposedly rich country where we already have a welfare state. Most of all, I’m scratching my head to understand why there is taxpayers’ money to pay for MPs’ kitchen worktops, duck homes, dry rot treatments and bed sheets but nothing available for this charity when its services are obviously so badly needed.
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