The Lincoln Community Larder, a registered charity established in 1989, is not one of the string of Foodbanks that have been opening across the country in the last couple of years. We do the same job, it’s just that we’re independent and we’ve been doing it longer.
We hand out food sufficient for three meals a day for three days per person – basic rations of mainly dried and tinned food although we do try to include some fresh produce such as vegetables. We are extremely busy and have seen a 170% increase in demand between April 2008 and April 2013.
People are referred to us by local front line caring agencies such as the YMCA, Citizens Advice Bureau, Age UK, Mental Health and Family Support services, Health Visitors, Churches and so on. We rely on these agencies to make the judgement on whether a food voucher is appropriate so we are therefore confident that the majority of our customers are genuinely needy people for whom the Larder is a godsend.
The Larder provides food for people experiencing a wide range of difficulties from vulnerable people with limited life skills, mental health or substance abuse problems to those who just have insufficient income, whether from Welfare Benefits or earned income, to make ends meet. We see a lot of long term unemployed – and it has to be said, the unemployable. A newer category of customer we are seeing in this locality are Forces Veterans experiencing homelessness, mental stress and family-related issues. We are there for all of these people, and thanks to the charity of others we are currently managing to feed them all. But where will it end?
Many of our customers come via the Probation Service or NACRO and we strongly suspect that if it were not for organisations such as ours these referrers would see an upsurge in re-offending amongst their clients and local traders would be shouting about increased levels of shoplifting.
A recent typical week saw us providing food for 80 people, 15 of whom were children. Three people were homeless, one had just fled to the women’s refuge due to domestic violence, 46 people had no money due to problems with benefit claims, and 12 of those 46 problems were due to benefits being sanctioned.
We have seen a steep rise in referrals due to sanctions applied to JobSeeker’s Allowance, often for the most trivial of reasons. A couple of examples: attending the JobCentre 10 minutes late to sign on incurred a sanction for 2 weeks for one man. A young woman left her employment to take up a job offer. The new company went out of business within days of her starting the new job – she was sanctioned for leaving her previous job.
One jaw dropping tale came from a man who was threatened with a sanction due to his “attitude”. His crime? He raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes in exasperation when he was told by the JobCentre that they had made a mistake and had expected him a week earlier for an interview. We have heard a whisper that JobCentre employees are on a bonus for the number of Jobseekers they can manage to sanction every day. We doubt it is true but you can understand how such rumours start.
We also see people IN work. They tend to come to us because their earnings, usually minimum wage, just won’t stretch far enough. Maybe the kids need new shoes whilst they are struggling to pay crippling utility bills and at the same time the car or the washing machine breaks down. They can’t do without the car because they need it to get to work. If you’ve been on minimum wage there is NOTHING spare to put away for an emergency, and if you’ve been unemployed, there is far less than nothing.
We have our critics. A Government Minister recently stated the reason for the huge increase in the use of foodbanks is down to the fact that more people are aware of their existence – and there are a lot more of them. Locally we have heard the comment that our customers queuing up for free food ‘don’t look destitute’. When you lose your job or your benefits are in a mess, you don’t suddenly stop washing and your clothes don’t instantly fall into disrepair. Would those critical of our work be more sympathetic towards these unfortunate folk if they were instead sitting in filthy rags begging on a street corner? No, I suspect they would treat them with just as much contempt.
The UK is said to be the 7th richest nation on earth yet here we are handing out pasta and baked beans to prevent malnutrition in our own population. Something has gone badly wrong somewhere.
Tina James lives near Lincoln and has been one of the Trustees of the Lincoln Community Larder since 2009. She is also a volunteer welfare benefits adviser with experience of the type of problems that lead people to The Lincoln Larder’s door.