People from all walks of life make their way into East Bristol Food Bank on a recent Friday afternoon – individuals, families, mothers and babies.
Some are in work but unable to make ends meet, many have been left short due to universal credit, all are at crisis point and have been referred to the St Mark’s Baptist Church Hall to collect emergency food parcels to tide them over for three days.
“This place is a life saver,” says one man, gratefully filling a large rucksack with tins. He declines the offer of pasta as he has limited gas to be able to cook it.
The food bank, run by the Trussel Trust and staffed mainly by volunteers, provided emergency food parcels for 5,200 people in the last year and is seeing a steady rise in the numbers being referred.
Manager Andy Irwin confirms the branch saw an increase of 10 per cent in the first quarter or this year and a further 10 per cent in the second quarter, with the roll out of universal credit being widely blamed for the rise in need.
The number of people we are seeing correlate with the national picture and if the trend continues, the increased use could be as much as 50 or 60 per cent higher than the previous year.
“It’s definitely having an effect,” says Andy.
“We are planning for it – we have moved into a bigger warehouse and I’m planning more supermarket collections to cater for the increased need.
“We are coping but some areas are really struggling. The good people of east Bristol have done us proud but what we worry about is people getting tired of us.
“Food insecurity is an issue for quite a few people now – people are struggling. We are seeing people who are working and not working in these crisis circumstances. The people coming in are pretty reflective of the community, it’s a very broad mix of people.”
As he speaks, more people come in and join those patiently waiting, while volunteers speak to each client in turn and go through a list to meet their needs.
“I shouldn’t need a great deal, just enough to get me through the week,” says one man, saying he has fallen short because he’s not been able to get much work lately.
Jo Harris greets each newcomer with a smile and the offer of a drink or biscuit. She has been volunteering each week since the food bank first opened in 2011.
“Since they introduced universal credits, it’s got worse,” she says.
“I think it is a last resort for people. We had one mother who had her benefits stopped and was left homeless. She had just got herself back on her feet and then that happened.”
“The hardest ones are those with little children but when you see the smiles and people’s gratitude – that’s so rewarding.”
In a back storeroom, three volunteers are busy going through lists as they come in and filling boxes with food supplies.
David Harris has been volunteering as long as his wife, Jo, and says it really gives an insight into just how many people are falling into crisis.
“We should not need food banks but we do,” says Katie Richards, a lecturer who volunteers each week.
“They say you can be just two pay checks away. I think we all think ‘it could never happen to me’ but it could be anyone.”
“We are not happy they are being normalised,” adds volunteer Kathryn Hutt.
It’s been a busy two hours for the team, with some 20 people through the doors in two hours as the food bank provides a vital role in providing supplies for those in crisis.
The Trussel Trust raised concerns earlier this year about universal credit, saying people have needed emergency food as they face waits of up to five weeks for their first payment.
East Bristol Food Bank works with around 300 referral agencies and is now doing a lot of work to help people manage finances – from work with water companies to bring down bills to sign posting clients to support organisations.
Andy has put in for a grant for a benefits advice worker.
“We have seen quite a lot of people not getting health benefits when they really should be,” he tells Bristol24/7, adding that for families in particular, it can be very difficult to access free food in Bristol.
All Trussel Trust food banks rely on donations. To find out how to support East Bristol Food Bank, visit: www.eastbristol.foodbank.org.uk/give-help/
Main photo: L-R: David Harris, Katie Richards, Andy Irwin and Kathryn Hutt