It’s more than 18 months since I last caught up with the manager of Greenwich Foodbank Alan Robinson. So what’s changed since then?
On the face of it the number of people food has been provided to across the eight foodbanks in the borough has stayed constant in this part of south-east London.
In the year to March 2014 they provided donated food to 6,500 people in total and the figure was more or less the same in the year to March 2015 – but with fewer children within that total.
There were 2,500 referrals to the foodbank in 2014/15 and 2,700 referrals in 2015/16. So the local picture in Greenwich is one of more referrals year on year but fewer households and families with children being referred.
Greenwich Foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust – a network of 400 foodbanks providing a minimum of three days’ emergency food and support to people in crisis. Nationally the network provided food for 1.1m in 2015/16 and that compares with 1.03m in 2014/15.
Any steady growth in referrals would seem to have been stemmed, says Alan – “but the cynical amongst us would say that it was an election year”.
He adds: “There were very few welfare changes planned for last year and the welfare programme still has a significant number of changes outstanding. The principle one is universal credit which hasn’t really hit Greenwich. Universal credit only exist in Greenwich for new claimants who are single. If you are single and a new claimant you go directly to universal credit.”
Universal credit is a single monthly payment for people out of work or on a low income which has started to replace six benefits with a single monthly payment. A comment piece in yesterday’s Guardian highlights the experience of one 23-year-old graduate living in Greenwich, whose postcode falls into a Department of Work and Pensions “trial area” for universal credit. She told the interviewer of a litany of problems with the application process that have resulted in her having to make a new claim over a month after she first applied. She is now £1,500 in debt after having to take out a bank loan to pay her rent and borrow money from friends. According to the author of the article @DrFrances Ryan, the scheme is “littered with administrative errors” …. and “even when it works exactly as intended claimants have to wait at least 42 days before receiving any money”.
Meanwhile she tells the author she’s “living off bread and jam”. The universal credit welfare scheme will not now be completely rolled out until 2022, the seventh delay since 2013. Given this young woman’s experiences perhaps the delays are actually a small blessing, says Dr Ryan.
It sounds as if she’ll soon become another statistic at the Greenwich Foodbank, if she can get a referral sorted out. Greenwich job centres are a major source of referrals to the local foodbanks.
Manager Alan Robinson says that in terms of organisations in Greenwich who refer people to the foodbanks, there’s been a year on year increase of about 10 per cent. Which organisations are referring? “We have good coverage with the community health teams, people who do health visiting and organisations helping those in the community with mental health issues. The vast majority of people in those teams are signed up. In terms of GP practices it’s largely the big health centres.”
He notes two key trend in terms of the groups of clients whose numbers have increased year on year. He is seeing an increase in people who cite domestic violence as a reason for needing to come to the foodbanks. This also chimes with the story of one young woman I’ve just interviewed for the blog whose experiences I’ll be writing about next week.
The other growth area in clients year on year is amongst those who have no recourse to public funds – “people who are present in this country but can make no valid claim for benefits”.
He adds: “In the main it’s people in this country with no (legal) right to remain here and that could include asylum seekers or people who are here because they’ve managed to sneak in. It’s a whole mixed bag of reasons. We are seeing more people in that category.”
It’s very good to start catching up with people like Alan, his wife Esme, and the other lovely and dedicated volunteers across their network.
I’m looking forward to starting to get to know some of the many clients they support and to sharing their life stories and insights with you over the coming months. Behind every foodbank statistic there’s a unique and valuable human story.