Finance

‘I can’t afford to survive unless I come here’: how food banks are tackling the growing cost of living crisis


It’s just after 10 on a bright and sunny Wednesday morning and, already, the queue for Hazel Grove food bank is snaking round the front of the Baptist Church in Stockport, Greater Manchester.  

The 60-strong team of people who volunteer at the food bank, which is open for two hours three times a week, tell Metro.co.uk that they have noticed a steady increase of clients seeking access to their services. The rapid increase in the cost of food, rent and bills has seen people forced to turn to charity, in order to feed themselves and their families. 

While the initial queue is already long, the team at Hazel Grove is prepared for their food bank to get even busier over the summer, as the cost-of-living crisis begins to hit our wallets hard. It is thought around two million people in the UK are receiving three days’ worth of emergency food from the Trussell Trust – an eye-watering increase from the 128,000 people who accessed their services a decade ago.  

The situation is getting increasingly desperate for families: research has indicated that as many as 1.3 million parents will be forced to use a food bank in the next year, with one third already skipping meals so their children can eat. Meanwhile, 20% of families have found themselves unable to have a hot meal in the last three months due to the cost of rising energy bills. 

One person arriving early in the queue is 52-year-old Jane, an NHS Health Visitor who is picking up food on behalf of a family in crisis that she sees. In the Stockport area she covers, more and more families are requesting food bank pickups.  

‘With this particular family, they have one child in hospital,’ she says, laden with carrier bags. ‘The mum is on a zero-hour contract, while the dad is a delivery driver paid per parcel he delivers. They’re doing everything they can, but they just can’t make ends meet. 

‘It’s not just food they’re struggling to buy, it’s formula and nappies too. And with childcare already so expensive, they can’t just nip out, even to the food bank.  

‘As a health visitor with a car, I just go and pick up their stuff for them. It’s no skin off my back.’ 

Volunteers prepare the food bank in Hazel Grove before they open the doors (Picture: Joel Goodman)

Despite being in a salaried job, Jane herself is feeling the pinch. 

‘I drive all around, so I can’t walk to my visits, yet the rising cost of petrol means it’s getting more expensive,’ she says. ‘I have colleagues worried about being unable to fill up their cars.  

‘We also have to pay extortionate parking fees, and we have to pay to register as nurses. We literally have to pay to do our job. We’re all really feeling it at the minute.’   

It’s something that Samantha, 47, has also noticed. Having volunteered at Hazel Grove food bank for six years, even using the service herself in 2019 when her benefits changed to the Universal Credit system, she’s seen people who would be considered typically more affluent now coming to pick up food. 

Samantha is Hazel Grove’s dynamo. She breezily bustles around the church, warmly chatting to some of the food bank’s clients as if they’re friends (and some of them may well be – they have a number of ‘regulars’ who use their services weekly) and organising the team to ensure that every visitor gets the items they require. 

A client makes use of the services at Hazel Grove (Picture: Joel Goodman)

‘I’m a mum of two children, who both have been diagnosed with autism, and I’ve been a carer for them,’ she tells Metro.co.uk during a brief lull. ‘So, I sympathise and understand what it’s like for some people. 

‘It’s definitely got a lot busier, and we’re seeing people from all different walks of life. We often see people in uniform with lanyards picking up bits for others. During the pandemic, there was someone in an NHS uniform and I rather flippantly asked if they were picking up for someone else, and she said it was actually for herself. 

‘There’s still a real stigma and embarrassment about having to use a food bank, even though so many people are being forced to. Some people don’t want to go to the local one because they don’t want to see people they know. But then do you go further afield and take the cost of having to drive or get the bus? 

‘It’s an emotional thing to be in this situation. There’s been times where we’ve had to coax clients in because they feel too ashamed.’ 

One woman in her fifties, who asked not to be named, says she is ‘embarrassed’ to have to visit Hazel Grove. 

‘I’ve never had to use a food bank before,’ she says. ‘This is the third time I’ve been here. I feel like I shouldn’t be here, but I feel like I genuinely can’t survive unless I go to a food bank. 

‘I’m on universal credit and I can’t work at the moment. But prices of everything have doubled and my income just doesn’t cover it anymore. 

Many at Hazel Grove worry about paying bills in the future (Picture: Joel Goodman)

‘I’m on my own and I’ve given up socialising as I just don’t have the money to nip into town – I’m feeling really isolated. I’m so anxious about the future. I’m worried about October when costs are expected to rise again. I don’t know how I’m going to pay them or what to do. No-one seems able to help.’ 

The rising cost of living has seen opposition parties constantly lobby the Conservative government to do more to assist the poorest and the hardest hit communities struggling to survive.  

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has since responded to heavy criticism by saying the government’s response to the cost-of-living crisis will ‘evolve’ as ministers ‘stand ready to do more’ – but has yet to outline any course of action to ensure this. 

Tory ministers have also been on the receiving end of criticism for some careless comments made in recent weeks: Lee Anderson faced backlash when he claimed there was no real need for food banks because the people who visit them ‘cannot cook properly’ and ‘cannot budget.’ 

Elsewhere, minister Rachel Maclean urged individuals to ‘seek better jobs’ or ‘work more hours’ if they’re struggling to put food on the table – seemingly not considering those who can’t work or are struggling to find employment.  

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been criticised for not providing enough support (Picture: UK Parliament)

‘Without a doubt, the government could and should be doing more,’ Nigel Tedford, General Manager of Hazel Grove food bank, explains. ‘We always want the government to do more in every walk of life. But we’ll never reach the situation where we can close down food banks until the disposable income in people’s pockets increases. 

‘We’ve got predictions that 10 million homes will be in fuel poverty by October this year. We’re seeing 9% rates of inflation. 

‘There should be more support really in society, so people plug the gap with the work we’re doing voluntarily.’ 

As well as being on the frontline, giving pre-prepared bags of food to those who come to Hazel Grove food bank with vouchers, the volunteers also manage and organise the warehouse of supplies that are delivered and distributed to the six other food banks in Stockport. 

With each donated item labelled and carefully sorted in date order, food is organised across the warehouses, stacked neatly on supermarket trays, before being sorted into carrier bags by volunteers. 

Nigel Tedford believes more could be done (Picture: Joel Goodman)

Unsurprisingly, pasta is the most commonly donated item, with the piles of dried pasta making up what’s affectionately called ‘pasta mountain’ by volunteers.  

However, while donations from brands and supermarkets are still plentiful, the number of individuals donating goods to Hazel Grove has sharply dropped. 

‘This is because inflation is starting to bite,’ Nigel explains. ‘People are now starting to watch what they buy and then are donating less to the food banks. That’s come about because of the economic services and it’s understandable. But we’ve been really blessed by outside organisations that have donated to us financially.’ 

Even if there appears to be a surplus of food, supplies drain rapidly. Six trays of tinned peaches can last less than two days when you factor in the rising numbers of people attending all seven food banks across Stockport. 

‘We’re paying £1000 a week on top of what we’re being donated,’ Nigel explains. ‘That’s how we can get our fruit and veg in for our clients.’ 

But it’s not just tinned food, bread and some veggies that Hazel Grove food bank offers for those in need. As well as staples, such as food, nappies and other essentials for babies, plus sanitary items and toiletries, volunteers also receive seasonal gifts and treats they ensure clients have access to. 

Fresh fruit and vegetables have to be bought in (Picture: Joel Goodman)

During Wednesday’s opening hours, one woman looked genuinely moved to see a Garnier face mask was available for her to use – an indulgent treat she had forgone for quite some time.  

Elsewhere, a young girl’s face lights up into a smile when Samantha gives her a small packet of chocolates to go alongside the rest of the food her mother was picking up. Another person takes home a small Bounty-themed Easter egg, leftover from some of the Easter stock. 

‘It’s vital that people who use food banks still feel as if they can have a treat,’ Nigel says. ‘People are coming here with so many difficulties and problems with their lives. It’s nice to send them away with something extra in their bags so they can treat themselves a little bit or treat their family a little bit.’ 

‘We also never give anyone anything that is broken or damaged in any way,’ Samantha adds. ‘We don’t want people to think: “this is what I’m worth.” If there’s torn packaging, we don’t give it. We don’t want people to feel bad that they’ve been here. Trying to do that little bit extra for people makes all the difference for their wellbeing.’ 

With all areas of life feeling the squeeze as belts tighten, Hazel Grove is attempting to respond to the problems they’re facing by offering more to its clients than just food. As well as budgeting tips and recipe ideas, they have also offered uniform vouchers and a listening service for clients who feel like they need to desperate talk to someone. 

While the warehouses have plenty of pasta, the food bank is in short supply of shampoo and other toiletries (Picture: Joel Goodman)

‘The uniform service was vital,’ says Cathy, 37, a single mother to a six-year-old boy who used Hazel Grove food bank last year. 

‘He was at that age where he was growing out of everything, and he needed all new clothes. That voucher took the sting out a bit. 

‘I’m not using the food bank now but as bills are rising, I’m on the verge of having to have more support again. I’ve already cut back on so much and my income just can’t support myself and my son anymore. I’ve had sleepless nights worrying about the bills.’ 

Nigel explains that while some of the rhetoric around food banks may be derogatory, it’s fundamental to remember the humanity of people that need to use their services.  

‘It’s simply treating people as real people,’ he says. ‘Just because somebody is coming to the food bank to get a charitable hand out, some people think it’s acceptable to treat them with derision. Poverty has no respect of people’s front doors. It can happen anywhere, any time. We just want to show them some respect.’ 

This sort of community initiative has been replicated in other places, such as the FoodCycle charities that are mostly based in London. Conceived in 2008 by Kelvin Cheug, FoodCycle combines surplus food, spare kitchen spaces and volunteers to create three-course meals for people at risk of food poverty and social isolation. 

Diner Lee, who regularly eats in the Peckham FoodCycle kitchen, explains it’s a great way to save money as well as meet new people – helping tackle the isolation that being short of funds can often lead to.  

‘I do think there’s a taboo about going to places like this,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘People think they’re going to meet unsavoury characters. 

‘But it’s a way to socialise and meet new people. I’m on Universal Credit and I wouldn’t be able to afford to go out for a three-course meal with friends every week. But FoodCycle tackles both those problems.  

Volunteers have found the food bank has gotten very busy in more recent weeks (Picture: Joel Goodman)

‘It’s part of my routine really – for some people, it might be their only time they can leave the house and meet people. 

‘It’s more than just a meal. It’s more like a club table where everyone has a seat.’ 

While more initiatives are cropping up across the UK to help with the rising cost of living, there’s one volunteer who may find themselves forced to give up some of her hours at Hazel Grove food bank. 

With Samantha’s youngest child now 19 and living between college and home, her universal credit has dropped by nearly 80%, leaving her with few options – effectively, find paid work, or leave the house she raised her children in. 

The food bank offers more than just goods, often giving isolated people a chance to interact (Picture: Joel Goodman)

She looks stoic as she describes her choices. 

‘I don’t consider myself poor, but I live within my means,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to be canny when it comes to deciding when I should buy a bus pass, or whether I should have cereal for my tea. 

‘I’ve streamlined a lot of my life back, but I do worry about trying to find work. I feel I’ve got quite a good skill set but I haven’t got a job I can just walk in to. I’m old compared to others who are younger, fitter, and more knowledgeable. I’ll have to really fight for employment, and I feel it’ll knock my confidence.’ 

And Samantha will be sad to leave volunteering behind, if she does feel she has to quit. 

‘I do love it here. This food bank is like a family,’ she says. ‘I hope I can find some way to stay. 

‘I just love knowing when I get home that I’ve done something worthwhile today. I like feeling like I’ve given something back to a place that has helped me so much. 

‘But I’ll make things work. I’ll cope. I always have done.’ 

If you would like to make a donation to the Trussell Trust, please visit: www.trusselltrust.org/make-a-donation/

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Kimberley.Bond@metro.co.uk 

Share your views in the comments below.


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