Growing queues and empty shelves: Inside a foodbank at Christmas

·Political Correspondent - Yahoo News UK
·8-min read
workers spakrhill
Sophie, Matt, and Jamie (right to left) work at the foodbank in Sparkhill, Birmingham (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

As millions of people take to the roads to make the journey home to spend Christmas with their family, a queue is forming outside the Trussell Trust's foodbank in Sparkhill, Birmingham.

Outside, drizzle is falling onto the business park where it's located. 

Inside, workers and volunteers sort items into categories so they can be handed out to the thousands of people that come through their doors each year. 

An estimated 2.5m Brits used foodbanks in 2020/21. In 2008/2009, the figure was less than 26,000.

Read more: 'We want to let them know there's no shame': Why this couple volunteer in a foodbank at Christmas

Matthew Holt and Sophie Swaine work in the front room and used to be clients of the foodbank themselves. Now, they hope to show vulnerable people that there's no shame in needing to seek help. 

Jamie Walsh, the foodbank's chair, came out of retirement to volunteer and help coordinate. He says the explosion in demand for the bare essentials has left them with shortages in key items. 

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Christmas items can be found nestled away in the food being prepared for distribution. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)
christmas pudding
Tessa, a volunteer at the foodbank, says that festive donations are welcomed - but its important the public ensure products do not have alcohol in, like this Christmas pudding containing brandy and sherry, as they are not able to hand them out. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

"Over the last couple of months, it's not just got busier, [the shelves] are empty," says Jamie, gesturing to dozens of empty crates. 

"There's also a clothes bank upstairs," adds Jamie, "we share the building."

He says the public have been very generous this Christmas, but also stresses that donations are needed all year around. 

"We are reliant upon donation," he says. 

"We're always running short. People can donate financially, too because we run out quite frequently of common things... Rice puddings, fruit juice, milk."

food list
The foodbank said they can see surpluses of some items and shortages of others, so have created a guide for those making donations. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

The inside of the foodbank is like a rabbit warren, with boxes and bags of essential items, like sanitary towels, bread, and clothes, scattered around the rooms. 

It is the warehouse that is the most striking part of the operation. 

Resembling a supermarket distribution centre, but with empty shelves, the room is vast and cold. Its scale is a signal of how widespread food poverty has become. 

"It's too cold in here to package up the parcels, but it keeps the food well" says Jamie. He points to the connected kitchen. "Volunteers package things up in there, it's a lot warmer and there's tea and coffee et cetera." 

warehouse
The warehouse at the foodbank is nearly empty following a surge in demand over recent weeks. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

David Wiseman, the foodbank's manager, has an office which sits off the room where the food parcels are handed out to the people queuing outside; the phone rings regularly. 

“As you can imagine, we get two types, really. For the vast majority, they don't want to be here… they think its degrading," says Jamie.

Read more: Food banks see ‘worrying’ rise in need after removal of Universal Credit uplift

“Whereas you get the seasoned ones, you know – they know the score. They know what's what."

Clients used to come inside, but due to the pandemic that's no longer possible. 

There's been a 47% increase this December compared to the previous year, and the foodbank say they have recorded 14,500 visitors so far in 2021. David warns the worst may be yet to come.

“I mean, those those figures say one thing, but actually what we've seen in this last quarter is – if it continues that growth – there'll be 20,000," he says. 

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David says if numbers keep increasing they could end up seeing 20,000 clients next year alone. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

"Because we're seeing over 450 people a week." 

Both Jamie and David say the situation has been worsened by a variety of factors, but highlight cuts to Universal Credit, the end of furlough, and higher costs of living as key factors. 

"Primarily, it's the fact that there's a lockdown in name only," David says. 

"We're actually in a situation where people are self isolating, are actually creating their own lockdown, but without it being official – so it not being official, means there's no furlough."

Read more: Half of families worse off under Boris Johnson but richest are getting wealthier, report says

He says government schemes, like the £500m Household Support Fund, had made "not a sausage" of difference to the scenes he has been seeing. 

When approached by Yahoo News UK, a spokesperson for the Treasury said: “The furlough scheme was an economy-wide intervention at a time when businesses were asked to close, currently the jobs market remains strong, with unemployment at 4.2% and vacancies at 50% above pre-pandemic levels.

“The best thing we can do now to support people is to control the virus, which is why we are urging everyone to Get Boosted Now.”

sanitary towels
Foodbanks do not only provide food, but essential items like women's sanitary products. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

David also says the cost of living crisis was deepening the suffering. 

"I don't see inflation coming down, and that is going to have a knock on effect and we have to have some sort of cutoff, unfortunately, where we have to say, 'I'm sorry, you don't actually qualify for it' despite the desperation."

The department for business, energy, and industrial strategy did not respond to request for comment at the time of publishing on the cost of living crisis. 

Read more: 'Devil's choice': The people most at risk from the fuel crisis

The biggest concern flagged by those at the foodbank, however, were the cuts to Universal Credit. 

A £20 weekly uplift to the benefit, introduced at the start of the pandemic, was cut earlier this year.

"For the most part, people come in through the door are on Universal Credit," says David. He says there was "exponential growth" in the number of clients as soon as the £20-a-week uplift ended.

foodbank users since 2014/2015
Foodbank usage has surged in recent years.

The cuts were fiercely controversial, with campaigners warning the removal of the uplift could push an additional 800,000 people into poverty. 

Yahoo News UK put it to the department for work and pensions (DWP) that arrangements for vulnerable people were not preventing spikes in foodbank usage in areas like Sparkhill. In response, they outlined the preexisting support. 

David says "the government now consider foodbanks to just be a de facto part of society".

Read more: Universal Credit: Single mum ‘told to go to the nearest foodbank for help' after £20 cut

When asked if he thinks the government are out of touch, he swiftly responds: "I mean, how can you not say that?"

"If [the government] had any idea what 20 quid a week would do, there is no way they would want to cut it," he says. "But that's the thing - it seems to be a very distant thing. And just admitting wrongdoing, or getting things wrong... I think seems to be a challenge for most people in parliament."

He adds: "I don't think we're ever going to see the prime minister turn up to a food bank for a photo op."

sparkhill foodbank
A queue of clients grows at the door of the foodbank during one of its busiest months on record. (Nadine Batchelor-Hunt/Yahoo News UK)

Volunteers and workers like David and Jamie will be working on Christmas Eve, handing out parcels before the foodbank closes for a few days between Christmas and New Year. 

On the topic of what it means to be proud of your country, David raises the notion of helping one's neighbour - very much in the spirit of the season. 

"My feeling, in regards to if someone is a patriot, is someone who helps their neighbour," he says. 

"If you help your neighbour, you're helping the country... so if that's not happening, then you can make your own conclusions."

Read more: Tory minister challenged over claims budget will leave the public £500 better off a year

The Trussell Trust told Yahoo News UK that "the answer to the growing crisis is a strong enough social security system to protect any one of us when we need it". 

"We need government at all levels to take action and are asking the public to help fight hunger this winter and join the campaign to fight for a future without the need for foodbanks," said Emma Revie, chief executive at the charity. 

For Jamie, the crux of the issue is simple. 

"Our goal is to ultimately not need to exist," he says. 

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