Soaring demand for food banks as emergency hand-outs become 'a way of life'
Demand for food parcels is soaring in parts of the Westcountry as emergency hand-outs become a "way of life" for thousands of hard-up workers and people on benefits.
Charities say more than half a million people are now reliant on food banks nationwide and have called on MPs to investigate fully the impact of benefit cuts.
Staff running the emergency provision service, often church volunteers, have described the situation in the region as "horrendous".
In Cornwall, the number of people claiming free food tripled from 2011 to 2012 and now looks set to double again this year. During 2012, a total of 155,977 meals were handed out by at least 15 foodbanks in the Duchy. And in the year to May, some 72,973 free meals were dished out in Camborne alone compared to 29,016 in 2012 – a rise of 151%. One food bank in the Duchy is on target for a 60% rise in 2013 and expects to dish out 3,800 parcels by Christmas.
In Devon, where at least half a dozen banks exist, including recently opened outlets in Axminster, Buckfast, and South Molton, almost 10% of the population of one town are registered.
Organisers say benefit reform and delays in payment, combined with a lack of a safety net, via traditional routes such as crisis loans, are pushing some families into dire poverty.
However, in some areas the majority are actually made up of the so-called "working needy".
Val O'Neill, who runs the Tavistock food bank, based at the United Reformed church, said its provision tripled, from one six-person box of food a day to three daily, when the benefit changes came into effect in April.
Mrs O'Neill, a shopkeeper who converted her failing organic toiletries outlet into a pound shop, said an initial disbelief that people were going hungry in the town has been disproved by the demand.
"People know I run the food bank and they pour their hearts out – it is just so wrong and the Government ought to be doing more," Mrs O'Neill added. "We expected a rise with the benefit changes and it's likely to get a whole lot worse when Universal Credit comes in but my concern is with the working needy, those caught in the middle working but not earning enough."
Further north and west along Dartmoor, Okehampton's Baptist church-run food bank was set up in 2008, then saw demand soar when Polestar Foods closed with the loss of more than 200 jobs.
Retired minister, Reverend Barry Walton, who runs the facility, says he regularly supplies around 15 parcels, enough to feed around 50 adults and 25 children, though demand did spike 30% in April. He estimates the bank has 600 "on the books", more than 10% of the town's population of 5,700, though the catchment area stretches slightly into the countryside.
Mr Walton, who blames delays in benefit payments rather than reform in general, said the demand was a "sign of the times". "It has become a way of life, a reflection on society, particularly with an area like Okehampton, where employment is so thin on the ground," he added. "One man comes to us because he breaks his glasses and needs a new pair – here is someone who just about manages on benefits then a bill like that tips him over the edge."
In Camborne and Redruth, one of the most deprived areas in Cornwall, the problem is worsening quite dramatically.
The Churches Transformation food bank provided a total of 46,968 meals in 2012, made up of 2,333 parcels containing seven day's supply for a family of three.
But with 38,000 distributed by May, Don Gardener, who runs the bank from the "pink" Methodist church at the top of Trelowarren Street, predicts the tally will hit 80,000 the end of the year. "It is horrendous and the biggest problem is when benefit changes – there are no crisis loans, nothing, it is frightening," he added.
"If you get made redundant and are on the minimum wage you won't get Jobseekers allowance for six to eight weeks. One lady's husband had a heart problem and lost his job as an HGV driver, then she had an operation on her hand and lost her job – they had £40 per week for food and heating – she arrived in tears saying she couldn't survive."
Church Action Poverty and Oxfam said the Government is failing to properly monitor the numbers now resorting to emergency help and called for an urgent investigation into "the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions, welfare reform changes and the growth of food poverty."
Up to half of those seeking help were doing so as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed, reduced or withdrawn, the charities' report said.
Energy Secretary Ed Davey said it was "completely wrong to suggest that there is some sort of statistical link between the benefit reforms we're making and the provision of food banks".
But the charities drew a direct link with the Government's two-year below-inflation cap on working-age benefit increases.
"There is clear evidence that the benefit sanctions regime has gone too far and is leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale," the report, Walking the Breadline, concluded.
The UK's biggest provider of food banks has reported a trebling of the numbers using them to more than 350,000.
Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring said: "Cuts to social safety-nets have gone too far, leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale."