UK food banks 'prepare for the worst' as COVID-19 aid comes to an end

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 30 September 2021 00:01 GMT

Jemima Hindmarch, a staff member at The Bow Foodbank charity, holds bags of food to be handed out to low-income families in London, Britain, on September 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sonia Elks

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Food aid groups in Britain worry about meeting demand as millions face losing emergency pandemic support

* Rich countries start winding up emergency pandemic aid

* Withdrawal of benefit top-up seen hitting millions in UK

* Food banks fear surge in demand as poor families struggle

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Charity food banks in Britain are "preparing for the worst" as the government starts winding up emergency aid measures put in place to cushion the coronavirus pandemic's impact on millions of workers and low-income households.

An extra weekly payment of 20 pounds ($27) to support the country's poorest families will be cut next month, and more than a million workers face an uncertain future as Britain becomes the first big economy to halt its COVID-19 jobs support scheme.

Food banks, which hand out staple goods from dried pasta to baby food, are especially concerned about the loss of the top-up to the Universal Credit (UC) benefit, which is claimed by almost 6 million people, according to official statistics.

"You're going to have parents who are going without food so their kids can eat," said Garry Lemon, policy and research director at the Trussell Trust, which supports more than 1,200 food bank centres across Britain.

"I've been speaking to lots of food banks in recent weeks and they are absolutely preparing for the worst ... They are doing everything they can to ensure they have got enough food to be able to cope with the increase in need."

The British move comes as other countries start wrapping up state aid programmes announced last year as COVID-19 battered the global economy.

In the United States, pandemic unemployment benefits that supported millions of jobless, gig workers and business owners came to an end in early September, a month after a moratorium on residential evictions expired.

Australia and Canada have also announced plans to end income subsidies in the near future.

A British government spokesperson said the income benefit increase was always intended to be temporary and had been effective in softening the pandemic's impact on family finances, adding that the focus now was on helping people back to work.

'DOWNWARD SPIRAL'

But anti-poverty groups said the loss of the benefit bonus would deal a heavy blow to low-income Britons.

It also comes as rising gas prices usher in higher domestic energy bills, with the average household expected to pay 139 pounds more each year.

"The last time I used it (a food bank) the kids hadn't had dinner for six days," said Emma, who has three young children and asked to be identified only by her first name.

Emma said the family was behind on paying bills due to financial stresses from the pandemic and the benefits cut would hit them hard.

"Once you're in that financial downward spiral, it's so hard to get back out of it because you're constantly running behind," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"The one bill you can amend from week to week is your food bill," said Emma, who is sharing her experiences with the Covid Realities research project that tracks the impact of the pandemic on low-income parents and carers.

Emma said she went to a food bank every few months - aiming to minimise visits so as not to deprive anyone in an even worse position.

"It's going to be more regular (now) – it makes me so upset because it's something that we never thought we'd have to do. We're not a well-off family but we've never been this bad before. I can't see a way out of it," she said.

'NEAR FULL CAPACITY'

Nationwide, more than 800,000 people will be pushed into poverty by the benefit cut, according to British think-tank the Legatum Institute.

A fifth of the benefit's claimants said they would "very likely" need to skip meals once the uplift is withdrawn, found a survey of more than 2,000 people carried out for the Trussell Trust.

A similar number said they would struggle to afford to heat their homes.

"Independent food banks are bracing themselves for a surge in demand as well as the challenges of food supply shortages and a reduction in donations," said Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network.

At Moray Food Plus, a food bank in Scotland, Mairi McCallum said they were already running "at almost full capacity".

"We're concerned about the negative impact the UC cut will have and the strain this will put on our organisation," McCallum said. "There's only so much more we are able to do."

At one East London food bank, where a stream of visitors arrived to pick up bags of store cupboard essentials, organisers have already had to limit the total lifetime number of visits to 12 per household.

"We're always getting new clients," said Jemima Hindmarch, a spokesperson for The Bow Foodbank, adding that they "constantly" worry about having enough supplies.

The impact of the benefit cut and rising heating costs over the winter months is likely to be "catastrophic" for people already struggling to cope, she said.

"It's pushing people just a little bit lower below that poverty line."

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($1 = 0.7297 pounds) (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)