Shropshire food bank use set to remain high after 'unprecedented' demand during pandemic
Inflation, the cost of living and Covid-19 – a "perfect storm" which has seen people across Shropshire unable to afford food to eat.
Sophie Padgett, co-ordinator of the Shropshire Food Poverty Alliance, said that she has seen "unprecedented levels of demand for food" over the last couple of years.
As the UK went into lockdown back in March 2020, the Government introduced a 'safety net' to protect people's finances during the pandemic, including the introduction of furlough and the increase in Universal Credit.
While a series of measures were in place to assist people through the crisis, food banks across the county were running a crisis support scheme for people whose rate of income was not able to meet their need for food.
The Shropshire Food Poverty Alliance was formed by a consortium of organisations committed to working together in order to tackle food poverty in and around Shropshire.
During the Covid pandemic, the alliance has supported vulnerable people by hosting monthly food bank meetings to share updates and resources, and also applied for grants to make supplies more stable.
There are now more than 20 food banks and organisations working together to support their communities by providing food parcels, and some of these were set up in response to the Covid crisis.
The alliance also created The Shropshire Larder website for low-income families, to provide advice and support with budgeting, maximising income, household bills, cooking on a budget, wellbeing and much more.
Sophie explained that there has been a "different demographic of people" needing to use food banks than there has been in previous years.
Food banks were seeing homeowners pass through their doors as well as people who were employed, which led to Shrewsbury Food Bank opening a slot in the evening for people to attend after work.
There were issues with five-week benefit delays, problems with direct debits going out and people being unable to adapt to the sudden change, as well as many people on "low income" who were not able to meet the costs.
While Sophie credited the "vital" role food banks have played alongside the community effort, she said this is an "income-related issue in the vast majority of people", which involves policy change to make a real difference.
A recent poverty report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, revealed that carers and families containing a person with a disability are disproportionately affected by poverty.
Carers were more likely to be on low-incomes because their ability to work is affected by caring responsibilities.
And, although informal carers are entitled to Carers Allowance, this only applies if they are caring for at least 35 hours a week.
For households with at least one disabled person, families face additional costs of living, as well as barriers to paid work and also have to deal with expensive private rents.
Looking forward to the next year, the alliance will be focusing on preventative measures, but the cut to Universal Credit means that the situation is getting worse for low-income families.
"It's not going to be an easy year," Sophie said, noting that she would be "pleasantly surprised" if she saw a drop off for the demand for food.
"We need policy change and a welfare system that holds everyone above the poverty line."
She said employers should also examine the way that people are employed, with the idea of implementing "substantial shifts in contracts" that are "fair and sustainable".
Recent figures from Ludlow Food Bank showed how volunteers had seen their highest numbers yet, with 803 different people being supported in 2021.
Reflecting on the annual report, Sophie said: "Food bank staff and volunteers have been working tirelessly to support their community, but they are under-resourced and over-stretched.
"The SFPA works closely with the county’s food banks and they are increasingly telling us that food parcels are just a sticking plaster, they will never let us address the root causes of food insecurity.
"This is not a sustainable, or the most dignified way to support people. We believe that everyone should have the right to be able to afford enough good quality, appropriate food for themselves and their families.
"We need fair wages, secure employment contracts, support with childcare and a welfare system that is fit for purpose and prevents people from falling into poverty."