Surge in food bank use shows we need stronger lifelines to stay afloat

It’s not right that so many of us are relying on food banks to weather the coronavirus storm. We must urgently strengthen the lifelines that could keep each and every one of us afloat, says Iain Porter.

Today’s new food bank figures are the first to give a robust picture of how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting demand on food banks across the UK.

The Trussell Trust’s network saw an 80% increase in emergency food parcels in the last two weeks of March compared to the same period last year. And the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), which represents food banks operating independently of the Trussell Trust, reports a 60% increase between February and March - 17 times higher than the same time last year.

The picture is one of a huge storm battering the country, and of a truly impressive and compassionate response from volunteers and communities under immense pressure. But it’s just not right that so many more people are being forced to turn to food banks to help keep them afloat.

Families with children are being pulled under

It’s especially concerning that, within these figures, we see a 120% rise in food parcels to children. Families with children are particularly exposed to the surging financial pressure from this pandemic. Parents who were previously reliant on schools, nurseries or grandparents for childcare are having to reduce hours or be furloughed. Some are having to take unpaid leave or are losing their jobs, putting deep strains on their incomes.

Staying at home also means families are facing increased bills and difficulty accessing decent and affordable food. Parents on low incomes who are used to shopping around for the best bargains or buying in bulk are unable to do so. As one person told us:

There’s plenty of food in corner shops – just be ready to pay £1.60 for a 39p loaf of bread.
Man, London

This comes on top of the pressures of trying to home-school children and keep them entertained, often with limited or no access to the internet or outdoor space, nor to basic materials such as colouring pencils, paper and books.

Further emergency measures to weather the storm

The Government has already taken some bold steps with its job retention and self-employment income support schemes. But huge numbers of people in and out of work will not be covered by these, or will still be facing reduced incomes and higher costs. To weather a storm on this scale, further emergency measures are necessary to add an extra lifeline to the Government’s approach.

That’s why - alongside the Trussell Trust, IFAN, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), The Children’s Society, StepChange Debt Charity and Turn2us – we’re urging the Government to strengthen the anchor it has already started to put in place to prevent more of us being swept into hardship. We stand ready to work with the Government on a package of measures as part of a temporary Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme.

One such step should be to boost support to low-income families with children, through an urgent, temporary £20 per week uplift to the child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits.

This support would go a long way in covering the additional costs families are facing during the lockdown, mitigating some of the disadvantage children have faced during school closures, and supporting them through the following recession. The measure would be quick and simple to implement and would ensure increased funds are well-targeted at children most at risk of hardship.

It’s vital that our social security system acts as an anchor in tough times to hold us steady when we need it most. Without the urgent provision of a targeted lifeline for children, millions already trapped in poverty face being dragged into deeper waters, while many more risk being pulled into poverty alongside them.