On the day of the 2017 election, telling for the Labour Party outside a community church, my eyes were opened to a largely invisible issue when I asked a young woman for her polling number and she replied that she was there to use the foodbank. I had no idea that my town even had one.
You’ll have to excuse this ignorance. I had only just returned to the area after seven years living elsewhere. Of course, I was well aware of the existence of foodbanks in general. Not long before, I had been reduced to tears by the scene in Ken Loach’s phenomenal I, Daniel Blake in which a single mother, Katie, hides behind a shelf in a foodbank to devour a cold tin of beans, having barely eaten in weeks so that her children didn’t go hungry.
That scene, however, takes place in an impoverished area of Newcastle. I am from Surrey. Surrey: the UK’s wealthiest county; a Conservative stronghold which last elected a Labour MP in 1945; a county known for its affluence, leafy suburbs, and popularity with premiere league footballers. Certainly not the sort of place you’d expect to find an abundance of foodbanks.
Shockingly, though, after contacting my local foodbank to enquire about becoming a volunteer, I discovered that its existence is far from an isolated case . In actual fact, there are five foodbanks in my borough, Elmbridge, alone, and a further 29 across Surrey.
The Trussell Trust was founded in Bulgaria in 1997, and first opened a branch in the UK in 2000. Today, they run over 400 foodbanks nationwide. Walton and Hersham Foodbank, for which I have now been a volunteer for around eight months, was founded in 2013 when a member of the clergy at St John’s Church in Walton-on-Thames became aware that churchgoers were going without food, and set up a store to ensure that those who arrived hungry did not go away in the same state.
This set-up was later awarded funding by Walton Charity and became associated with the Trussell Trust, and a second branch was established in St Peter’s Church in the neighbouring village of Hersham.
When I began volunteering for Walton and Hersham Foodbank, I did not expect to see many clients. It did not take long to be proven wrong. Each branch operates two sessions per week. On three separate occasions, the stream of clients was so constant that neither myself nor the other four volunteers on duty had time to even make ourselves a cup of tea. One afternoon, we fed 33 people in the space of two hours. In total, Walton and Hersham Foodbank fed 1,586 clients last year, around 4.5% of the area’s population.
Contrary to popular opinion, foodbanks are not open to anyone who happens to walk in. Instead, Trussell Trust centres send vouchers out to other local organisations such as a Citizens Advice bureau or Job Centre, NHS clinics and, perhaps most horrifyingly, schools. Visitation tends to increase during school holidays when struggling parents cannot rely on school meals to ensure that their children don’t go to bed unfed. These organisations can then issue vouchers to families and individuals in need, and the vouchers can then be exchanged for three-day food parcels consisting of items such as pasta, baked beans and tinned vegetables.
As I was told when I attended training, there is no typical foodbank client. I have seen people come to us because their benefits were delayed or because the DWP failed to concede to their GP’s advice that they were too unwell to work, and a few of our clients have been homeless, but these oft-cited examples are not the only demographic of foodbank users. Very recently, we were visited by a midwife who simply could not keep up with the rising cost of living on her salary, and she is by no means an anomaly: the majority of foodbank clients are in work.
In the two weeks preceding Christmas 2017, the Walton branch of Walton and Hersham Foodbank fed a total of 140 clients over eight hours. During that fortnight, I met a client who has remained in my mind ever since. Approaching his eightieth birthday, he had recently lost his son and daughter-in-law in a road accident and taken custody of their children. Unable to support them on his pension, he told us that he had a job interview that weekend to work as a taxi driver, having been a driving instructor prior to his retirement.
He was remarkably upbeat given his tragic circumstances and was clearly doing his utmost to approach the situation positively for the sake of his grandchildren, but the fact that a man who had lost so much could be forced to rely on charity for survival was heart breaking. This should not be happening in twenty-first century Britain. It certainly should not be happening in twenty-first century Surrey.
Across the county, over 14,000 food parcels were distributed by foodbanks in 2017: a 20% increase on the previous year, almost three times the national average which, according to Trussell Trust data, was around 6.64%. Significantly, the increase was substantially higher in areas of full Universal Credit roll-out, but even then, still averaged at 16.85%, and Universal Credit is yet to be fully introduced in Surrey.
Really, it makes sense that an affluent area, where living costs are disproportionately high and you’re more likely to see a herd of deer than an Asda, would have a particularly catastrophic effect on those living below the poverty line, but it remains an invisible issue. I recently attended Elmbridge Borough Council’s annual public meeting where I raised the issue of local foodbank reliance, and was informed by a councillor that she was unaware that Walton and Hersham Foodbank even existed.
Foodbank dependence in wealthy suburbs is growing too rapidly to be dismissed as an exception. This, as much as Katie in I, Daniel Blake, is the face of British poverty in 2018. It’s time to start acknowledging it.