Last week, the Trussell Trust revealed that their 1,300 foodbanks across the UK gave out 1.3 million emergency food parcels between 1 April and 30 September 2022. This marks a rise of over 50% from pre-pandemic levels, more than ever seen before. Wave after wave of crisis has driven 320,000 people to a Trussell Trust foodbank for the first time in the last six months alone.
And this ‘tsunami of need’ is rapidly wiping out resources. The need for emergency support is outstripping donations, and foodbanks are spending unsustainable amounts of their income on providing food over the increasing running costs associated with provision. The latest report from Theos also emphasised this rising pressure, highlighting the ‘fraying fabric of civil society and faith groups’ who continue to provide services such as emergency food, and now warm spaces. Churches, charities and community groups cannot keep up with rising costs and rising demand, despite all the willingness in the world. With more and more people sinking through the gaps of support, the fall-back is now at risk of showing signs of damage too.
Who will pay the highest cost here? We’re hearing almost daily about the ‘black hole’ in the government’s budget, that will cost billions to fix over the coming years. But tomorrow? Sadly it remains those lowest on the income spectrum and at the highest risk of poverty and who pay the price. Nothing significant has changed since we spoke out in September, saying that despite the Energy Price Guarantee, the average family of four receiving Universal Credit will still need an additional £1,391 over the winter to stay warm and fed. Cast aside during political turmoil, the motivation to bridge this gap has yet to appear from the new government. The value of benefit payments continue to erode in the face of rising costs. In the meantime, households that once requested “kettle packs” where the food could be prepared using only a kettle are using “cold boxes”, because now even hot water from a kettle is too often out of reach.
The reality is that the safety net has been weakened and neglected for a decade, and is now tearing at almost every level. One in five people referred to the Trussell Trust network now are in working households. Work, social security and now charity is buckling under the weight of the pressure.
This is what I will be thinking about as the Chancellor steps up to launch his Autumn statement on Thursday. As he trailed the potential for tax increases and major spending cuts, the Chancellor promised to protect “the most vulnerable”. “We have a plan to see us through choppy waters…” he said. To draw on the much used metaphor from the Covid-19 lockdowns, we’re yet to see whether the Chancellor realises that whilst we all face the same storm, the boat carrying the most vulnerable is floundering.
Now, we need action from government that sees us through the short term emergency, and rebuild for the long term. There must be further emergency support to bridge the gap this winter, and commitment to raise benefits in line with inflation this year and every year. But we also need a long term vision that weaves a safety net fit for modern Britain, where families are offered enough support to build decent lives. Where people can regroup and rebuild, and are able to contribute to their communities.
I realise that the message of this blog is bleak. But even in the long nights now upon us, my faith calls me to search for good news. In our Advent resources this year, Deacon Eunice Attwood brings us wisdom from her local food pantry. When presented with the good news Mary sings out to us each Advent:
“He has filled the hungry with good things”
One food pantry guest replied:
“Has he now?
So who is this ‘he’?
I’d like to meet him.
I’ve got a few things to tell him.
Cos, I’m starving, not full.
Good things you say.
I’d like some good things.
Where can I find them?”.
It’s hard to believe that fullness will come when hunger is your reality.
But here, the good news is that the reality of Mary’s bold proclamation of God’s justice remains true, year after year, even in the midst of the long dark night. The good news is that Mary’s proclamation is not an empty claim, but a rallying cry for justice. It’s calling to us now is to be empowered. To demonstrate that this really can be true, not only in eternity but today and tomorrow. In order to proclaim that ‘God has filled the hungry with good things’, we need to be dissatisfied with short-term patch up solutions that fail to keep hunger at bay. We need to be dissatisfied with a tearing safety net that is doing nothing to hold up those who are struggling. We need to loudly call out the injustice that poverty is allowed to exist among us by those who have the resources for change.
The decision to bridge the gap for families this winter, or uprate benefits in line with inflation in April, are moral choices which signal that addressing poverty is part of our responsibility as a society. They are the start of a long journey that can and should lead us towards a just world, where we can all boldly proclaim with Mary that ‘God has filled the hungry with good things’. This week offers us the chance to take the first step.