B&H Fairness Commission gives food banks something to chew over

 What do our food banks think about the city report into inequality and poverty
By Emily O’Brien

I am lucky enough to work with many of our city's food banks and emergency food providers, who we bring together every six months for a network meeting, which this morning we held at Bevendean community cafe and food bank. By coincidence, the meeting took place hot on the heels of the launch last night of the city’s Fairness Commission report and food banks, unsurprisingly, had ideas on how they can help to achieve the vision in the report.

Firstly, the city’s food banks welcomed the emphasis on child poverty, and especially how we can ‘poverty-proof the school day’. Food banks are seeing more and more families ; however they also keep hearing about families that are in real need but not accessing support, and there is a strong  feeling that schools should be a gateway.

Yet so often schools don’t engage; for example they may even be active in collecting donation for food banks, but then not refer on the families who would benefit from their services. This is something I have heard recently too from Chomp, the ‘holiday hunger’ scheme that offers a free nutritious meal and fun activities to low income families in the school holidays.  

Information needed for parents

If all schools could simply build in information on the support available to parents in all their welcome packs and ongoing communications; and if support staff such as school liaison officers could be knowledgeable and active in referring to these schemes; if there could perhaps even be a leaflet produced to go home with children for their parents to read; this would be a big step forward to achieving this goal.

The emphasis on investing in advice services in the city was also welcomed, with a plea that more of this advice should be allocated to food banks. People spoke movingly today about how volunteers could sometimes simply be overwhelmed with people’s troubles; how some individuals, when they arrived at the food banks desperate, sometimes with no-one else to talk to, sometimes with very complex problems, would share their stories with volunteers, and how it can all simply be too much to be on the receiving end.

Food banks have found professional advisors coming into food banks have helped enormously to prevent volunteer burn-out as well as ensure there was real practical help and guidance on hand for some of the most vulnerable people in the city just at the moment when they had come to seek help.

Brighton and Hove’s incredibly high housing costs is one of the biggest drivers of food poverty, whether ‘crisis food poverty’ (which the food banks deal with) or whether this is the longer term day in day out  ‘household food insecurity’ which we address in the city’s food poverty action plan.

Universal Credit concern for food banks

Words like ‘eviction, ‘no affordable housing for families’, ‘homelessness’ echoed round the meeting this morning, with a sense of the utter devastation that comes when people have to choose between eating and having a roof over their heads. So there was a strong welcome to the recommendations on tackling the city’s housing crisis, and a desperate hope that the plans will succeed.

Finally, food banks welcomed the recommendation that food banks and other partners should work with Job Centre Plus locally to reduce the numbers of families referred to foodbanks because of a problem with the benefit system, such as delays in processing, or a flawed decision to sanction a benefit.

However they also sent a warning. There is only so much that food banks can do about any of this, other than pick up the pieces when things go wrong. We desperately need the DWP to act at their end to make sure their processes are smooth. The big concern at our meeting today was about Universal Credit, which will be rolled out much wider in the next few months. When people receive universal credit, there is already a four week delay before any money is received. However in practice there is also a two to four week wait on top of this at the moment, as the DWP process claims. Six to eight weeks can be a long time to wait to access support, and the DWP must make sure that this does not happen as the new benefit is rolled out to more claimants including families with children.