First-hand experts set out the causes of hunger and potential solutions
Food banks all over the country are a lifeline for thousands. In the village of Easington Lane, in the North East of England, the charity Hetton New Dawn (supported by local churches) runs a food bank and a place of welcome, which provides free meals. Here, two volunteers and four recipients at one of the Monday sessions tell their stories.
1) Margaret: “Some don’t even have a fridge”
I have been in since the beginning, volunteering. It started off in a very small way, trying to help the community because we knew there was a need, and it escalated – especially because of sanctions, then Universal Credit. When we started, sanctions was the main problem. And now, people have got six weeks with no money if they change to Universal Credit.
Universal Credit started off here with 25-year-olds, and it has now started for couples, so that could be another issue that we could be looking towards in the future.
Demand has been going up and up and up. We need a lot of money and donations. Each church has started each month saving a particular item, so our church is doing tinned fruit at the moment and everyone brings a tin each week. We had a donation of £100 this morning, and around Christmas we get hampers given.
A lot of people are working, but are on low incomes.
We say people can use the food bank only six times in a year. If we know people are really genuine we can look at it again.
There are no jobs here, and one issue is that you have got to have a phone or computer to be able to go online or to sort your benefits out, and they keep you on the line. I was on my mobile for about 18 minutes on a call to them. I have free minutes but for anyone who doesn’t that’s a lot of money.
If they change to Universal Credit it’s six weeks to wait. Mental health issues are overtaking people because of this. For people who have a bit of a mental health problem this has escalated it and made it worse. People who are on no money for six weeks do not have spare stuff stocked up in the fridge – and some don’t even have a fridge.
The churches have all been really supportive and it has made them aware of the problems in the communities.”
2) Hilary: People are desperate, sometimes suicidal
I started working for the charity in September 2016, overseeing the finance side of things, but I used to come in on Mondays and got more and more involved. The main change has been Universal Credit and the impact that has had. It’s the delay between the decision to transfer somebody and the time it takes to pay them. We are aware there is an emergency advance payment but a lot of the people we deal with have not got money or ability to budget with, and food is sometimes the last thing they keep money for.
There are sanctions and the minimum is three weeks but we are talking months for some sanctions. How are people expected to live without any income whatsoever?
Again and again, it’s sanctions that have put people into debt and often debt leads them to unscrupulous loans where they never stand a chance of getting out of it. Only a few weeks ago we had a young man desperate because he was under threat from people he had borrowed from. He tried to commit suicide and was taken into protective custody.
I used to be an employment adviser and I’m aware that there is no leeway for people to make mistakes within the system now and we find this when we talk to Job Centre advisers. They have to do things because that’s the way to do it. If someone misses an appointment, no matter what the reason, they have to apply a sanction.
I think this automatic sanction needs to be reconsidered. One of the men here was in hospital when he should have been at an appointment, and he was sanctioned. He can prove he could not make the appointment; how can this happen?
I would like to see the Universal Credit roll out suspended until they put something in place that does not leave people without any money for six to eight weeks.
As an employment adviser, I know there are some people who use the system, but the restrictions put in place have made the most vulnerable people even more vulnerable.
I have spoken to more men in their 20s and 30s who have attempted or feel like suicide, because of the position they are in. That has gone up so steeply. I have spoken to five in the last two months. That’s quite a shock to me because my faith means every life is valuable and what these young men do not have is any hope.
The food bank and Place of Welcome at Easington Lane
3) Wayne: “I am just scraping by”
I have been sanctioned for five or six weeks now. I was sanctioned on JSA and am on a medical to get back on ESA.
They told me I had missed an appointment, which I had not even known about, and they stopped my money. My last income was six weeks ago, and since then I have had to rely on the foodbank and friends. I had my medical for ESA last week, and should hear within two to three weeks.
It just makes you feel drained inside. It puts you in difficulty and your housing benefit stops as well, so you have to pick up the extra. I went to the council and they were alright – Sunderland council give you a voucher for the electric and gas and a food voucher for Tesco, but only once a year.
The Government should be helping people more than they are. It’s ridiculous. I am just scraping by with what I can get here at the food bank. It lasts a few days.
I lost my mum last year and do not get on with my dad, and it’s difficult. I’m not interested in the politics of it or the Government; I just feel they’re out for themselves. They promise the world then once they are in that’s it. But they should not sanction people for as long as they do. They really should help you and not sanction you. In places like this there are not many jobs; it’s just villages.
4) Simon: I was sanctioned while in hospital
I was on ESA until a couple of months back. I missed an appointment but I was in hospital at the time, and can prove that. I could not go. I am claiming JSA now, or I would be kicked out of my flat.
I get £144 a fortnight. It’s not enough really to get by. I have been here to the food bank a couple of times now. If this place was not here, there would be nothing I could do – I’d probably starve to death.
They should be stopping sanctions like this, and not letting them go as long as this. They need to give people a little more on ESA. It’s not like I’m not unwell. Sometimes I can have three or four fits a day and I am on my own in an upstairs flat. My friend next door once had to kick the door in and phone an ambulance. I have epilepsy and I missed one appointment because I was in hospital.
They’re not listening and they’re not doing enough. They know my problems, but they are trying to keep me on JSA, when I get a lot less on JSA than ESA and with more conditions.
I am in a one-bedroom flat upstairs, and my epilepsy is bad. If I have a fit, no one can get upstairs to help me. I am trying to get to the council at the moment but I have not got access to a computer.
One time, I was texting my friend and he realised my texts were going funny and he knew something was up. He came and kicked my door in and he found me lying there. That was about four months ago. I have not had a fit now for a few weeks but sometimes it’s three or four a day. I need space so that if I am having fits, someone can come.
Sometimes it can just come on I cannot even tell it’s coming sometimes. I do not know if there’s just not enough housing but hopefully I can get somewhere, or I’m worried someone will find me dead in my flat. I want to be where my family are so if I have fits, they can stop with me that night.
5) Emma: “It’s a fantastic community but it’s like going back to the miners’ strike with the poverty”
I was on ESA and it was taken away last December . They said I had not sent a questionnaire in, but I had. It’s still going on, and I am having to go through the process of appeals, but I have had to go to JSA because I had had nothing since last December  until September . I spent all that time without anything.
I have got £88 a fortnight now JSA and child benefit, so £180 a week in total for me and two teenage children. With ESA, I used to get just under £300 a fortnight, plus my child benefit and child tax credits, so treble what I get now.
With everything that has gone on, my mental health just dropped and it’s about building it back up now.
In those months when I had nothing, it was just about surviving, for the kids, making sure there was enough gas and electric for the girls. When they were not here, when they were with their dad, I was not bothering about me. I was cutting back on heating and food. There have been days when I have not eaten. It’s been really hard.
They need a fairer system. For me just to get a letter to say I am not getting any more money, and then to have to go through the system of appealing and mandatory reconsideration; all that takes time with no help or support. It’s hard and although there’s crisis support with the local authority, I was told that when I was just getting child benefit support for the girls that did not constitute crisis. The crisis support that is there is not working properly.
I would say to Theresa May, let me do your job and I would make this community a whole lot better. Living around here is hard enough. It’s a fantastic community but it’s like going back to the miners’ strike with the poverty, in fact it’s worse than that. We are the forgotten villages.
They need to stop the scapegoating, and the fighting between politicians and managers. Resources are being wasted when they should be going to families. Theresa May has some fabulous frontline workers but they do not keep them.
It’s hard full-time, and there’s very little to do round here for children other than the antisocial behaviour that goes on.
Before I lost my job, I knew difficulties were going on but this has confirmed to me that what they are trying to make work for families is not working. It needs to be less difficult to get what you are entitled to. It’s degrading to have to go on benefits. I have worked all my life and to go through what I have had to go through is just horrendous, just to survive. To take my ESA away, saying they’d not got the questionnaire that I had sent by recorded delivery, then having to go through this process is horrendous. Until you have been in that situation, you do not know how hard it is.”
6) Peter: “We need different politicians… They lack empathy because they have not lived it”
“I’m from Sheffield originally, but moved up from Essex to the North East eight years ago.
When my ex got pregnant I moved up here. I had fewer ties to my area than her. When I moved here I had nothing, and at one point I was living in a shed beside the lakes, an old abandoned building. I live now in private rented accommodation but I do all the repairs myself and I cannot afford gas or electric. I’ve not had the gas on for ages, so to have a bath I have been boiling kettles of water.
With no ties to the area, the housing providers won’t help us, that’s why I had to go private.
I have been on Jobseeker’s Allowance at the moment. I was working til November last year and got made compulsorily redundant. I was working at a Tesco that used to be 24-hours, but then they shut it at night time. While my ex was studying at university, I looked after our daughter, but my relationship with my ex broke down.
I was getting £128 a fortnight on JSA and have to top up my rent with that as well. Food is difficult. I live in Hetton-le-Hole and rely on public transport. There’s a little Tesco but it’s expensive. I would be lucky if I have £30 a fortnight for food once I have paid everything else, so I come to places like this.
I have just been switched to Universal Credit and am due to get my first payment on Wednesday. Since my JSA stopped I have done some odd jobs, repairing taps and sinks in return for food basically. I have had neighbours plating up food for me.
My landlord is down in London, I don’t think he has ever seen my house; he bought it as an investment. The boiler is 17 years old and does not work properly, and I don’t put the gas on any more.
Universal Credit is a lot of hassle. Half of them don’t seem to know what they are doing and you get passed from one place to another. It’s demoralising.
I have always been adamant that we need different politicians. If we are going to have someone doing the budgeting, have a single mum who is used to budgeting and living on the breadline, instead of all these top-notch skilled people who have had everything. They have not been through it, they do not know. I have lived on the streets and seen parents on the streets.
I don’t think they listen, and I think they lack empathy because they have not lived it. There is something wrong.
My daughter lives with my ex now and when we have our house sorted we will have shared custody. My house now is uninhabitable basically.
I get food by using food banks and doing odd jobs for neighbours, and selling my possessions. I have sold my telly and everything. I’ve even resorted to just picking up odd bits of scrap when I am walking around, because there’s a lot of scrapmen round here – just bits here and there that I find fly-tipped and that I can take to scrap dealers.
They need to help the most vulnerable and people with mental health issues, and help the homeless. My house is not the best, but I was homeless for a long time.
I have been out of work a year now and there is nothing. There’s car manufacturing and I have done the training but when I did the trial I wasn’t fast enough. So I’m doing odd jobs for people for donations of food.
For Universal Credit, I’m supposed to do eight hours a day job searching, and I’m supposed to go online but I cannot afford the internet. Hetton library has shut down so the closest place is here or Houghton, a mile and a half away. Then you go to the Direct Gov site, they will have 40 to 50 jobs but 28 to 30 of them will be the same jobs but with different agencies. There are some nurse jobs but I’m not a nurse, and other jobs are gone. It’s very demoralising.
I have gone two or three days without food before. I often miss meals. I don’t have enough to eat. I seem to sleep more, I’m more lethargic. I used to walk everywhere, miles and miles, but now it’s a chore even coming up here, a mile and a half.”
- Simon and Emma (stories 4 and 5) are pseudonyms, as the speakers did not want to give their real names