Food bank queues highlight impact of rising bills

In the first of a series of reports for JRF, Mary O'Hara visits the Braunstone estate in Leicester and finds out how a food bank is helping people on low incomes to cope with rising utility and food bills.

It's Monday afternoon and there are a few things that stand out immediately at St. Peter's Church on the Braunstone estate in Leicester.

Around 20 people are bustling inside the church hall. They are moving tables, filling bright orange plastic supermarket bags with produce ranging from bread to baby food, shouting instructions at each other, laying out cakes and pouring mugs of tea. Toddlers are playing or running around. At first glance it resembles a church fete being set up but talking to the queue of people waiting outside to enter and the volunteers hard at work it’s clear that this is no fete.

The women, it turns out, are queuing for food.

"There’s not much money about," says one local woman, Janet, who is waiting in line. "Sometimes you are trying hard to pay your bills as well as buy your food."

Another woman, Chris joins in: "A lot of people live on the poverty line and it does help them out a bit." [Audio Link]

St. Peter's church hall is the location for a twice-monthly food bank (it runs every other Monday evening and Tuesday morning) that has been in operation since January 2012 in response to a growing need from people living on the Braunstone estate.

What began with a few families approaching Reverend Chris Burch [Audio link] for some food assistance at Christmas 2011 has grown into a fully-fledged programme run by The Braunstone Foundation (previously the Braunstone Community Association).

By October 2012 there were over 300 'members' coming regularly. Some weeks as many 130 bags filled with basic provisions are collected by a mixture of local people. Many are families with small children, struggling to pay all their bills week to week and having to supplement low-income work or benefits with food handouts. Some are older people surviving on meagre incomes. All of them, according to Angie Wright, chief officer of the foundation, are facing financial difficulties exacerbated by welfare cuts, job losses and austerity.Braunstone, a large estate on the outskirts of the city, with a population of around 15,000, has been a deprived area for some time. Angie explains that, as one of the original beneficiaries under the New Deal for Communities, a £49.5m grant over ten years helped transform the estate for residents in numerous ways, including building a new school and investment in services such as children’s centres and jobs programmes, but that with local and national government purse strings being tightened.

Rising utility and food bills are just some of the hardships hitting families, Angie says, and the food bank is helping to alleviate some of the fallout.

"There are a lot of low-income families," she points out. "It's not just people on benefits who are struggling. People are coming and saying 'We are stuck, we need a bit of help.' People used to get crisis loans but the system doesn't work any more.

"I've been shocked," Angie says of the demand for the food bank. "I've not seen anything like this before."

With food provided by FareShare, a national charity that sources and distributes food from supermarkets earmarked for landfill and redistributes it to people in need, B-Inspired volunteers are meeting some of the demand.

The women like Janet and Chris queuing for food, many of whom are collecting bags of produce for themselves and for elderly neighbours, say the food share programme is just the tip of the iceberg.

On the upside, Janet says, "It's got a real community spirit and it brings people together" but that the litany of pressures prompting people to attend are worrying. The women talk of rising energy bills, upcoming changes to the housing benefits system and government welfare policies as things that are escalating concerns for the future.

Everyone speaks of fearing that things are about to get much worse. They are anxious that the social safety net often taken for granted is being eroded.

"We are being left behind. You are left to fend for yourself," says Lizzie, another woman in the food bank queue. "It's a really good thing that there is a food share."

Explaining how the programme works, [Audio link] Sharon Mason, a head volunteer at the food bank, says that in addition to providing people with practical help in the way of groceries, the bi-monthly project has become a community focal point and somewhere people can turn to in hard times.

"It's like a small meeting group which is really nice to see. Everyone's very supportive of each other. It's a good network as well. I've moved up and down the country most of my life but I do feel that the Braunstone people have that community spirit".

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