Maidenhead town centre is a postcard-perfect vision of dreary British consumerism with its rows of coffee shops, Greggs bakeries, chain clothing stores and mobile phone shops. You'd be forgiven, then, for thinking a queue swelling at 9.20 AM on the high street was for of some sort of flash sale. In fact, it was the queue for the local food bank.
There's been a staggering 163 percent rise in foodbank use than in the previous financial year, and over 900,000 adults and children have received three days' emergency food and support. Despite signs of economic recovery, the poor have seen their income becoming more and more squeezed. More people are relying on foodbanks than ever before.
At just pushing 9.30 AM, the Maidenhead foodbank was rammed with people. Shelves were stacked ceiling-high with tinned food and bags of pasta and it felt more like a UN posting in a war zone than sleepy Berkshire. Founder Sue Brett, a cheerful ball of energy, was buzzing around, chatting to volunteers and beneficiaries. It was technically her day off.
"This charity started in 2010 and was originally called Open Kitchen. We started doing meals for the homeless, but then families started coming as they couldn't feed their children," she says. "So I sent out an appeal for food with the idea that four of five families that were coming could get food parcels. Within three weeks I had a garage absolutely full of food and people kept saying, 'Oh I've got somebody who's in need of that'. We already had a charity name and bank account so we decided to go independent. I approached the Citizen's Advice Bureau, who agreed that they would provide vouchers for us."
How does someone get a voucher, then? "Everyone that comes is given a voucher and are accessed by an outside body who can tell if they're really in need or not. The only requirement is that, without our help, they'd be without food for at least three days." By the looks of it, there seems like there are a lot of people who fit the criteria. "We're giving out about 120 food parcels a week. We could give out more but we just don't have the stock."
Brett says donations come "mainly from churches" but that they also "get money to go out and buy food with". Every bag given out contains a breakfast, lunch and a main meal and is comprised of "tinned fish and meat, that sort of thing". There are three bags per parcel that people take with them, but when they come on a Saturday they can pick what goes in it. A family of six, for example, can be given "the bigger boxes of cereal and a few more cans of beans". They also give out pre-made bags throughout the week from various distribution points—presumably for those who can't wait until the Saturday.
It's not all tinned food and pastas, though. "We're unique in that we're one of the only food banks who can give out £5 vouchers for fresh fruit and veg," says Brett. "We give out bread, too." Looking around, the place was full of users both young and old. It was a complete cross section of society.
"Some people just need it as a one off," says Brett. "Others who are in work might use it once a month if their wages don't cover the last week or two. Some people use us for much longer. When we first set up it was just people who had lost their jobs and there was a gap between getting their benefits. Now, though, usage has increased through something Brett refers to as "sanctions."
"The bedroom tax has had a huge impact on us," she sighs. Also, if you've got cancer and you've got an appointment at the hospital and you don't go to sign on—even though you've told them—they will stop your benefits. Then you're back to having to reapply and wait six weeks. People are expected to live on nothing. Individual cases aren't looked at. People starve."
So what does she think the solution is, other than a government capable of balancing its books without pulling the rug from under the poor?
"We waste around 15 million tonnes of food a year in the UK. To stop that would completely eradicate this," she says, gesturing around the bustling aisles. We're opposite one of the UK's 3,378 Tesco stores, which seems bitterly ironic. Does this foodbank, or others, get any help from them? "They've got better," she says. "Twice a year they collect for their local food bank and this collection was the first time they collected for us. We don't get waste food from them, though, unlike Sainsbury's. They give us all the bread."
Perhaps part of the problem is to do with laws surrounding sell-by dates? "Yes. When it reaches the date they can't sell it but can—technically—give it away. The law doesn't say they can't pass it on to another organisation but they are so worried about being sued that they won't. Brett is lobbying the government to try and get these laws changed. "What I would like is a law that says they have to pass the food on to any charities, churches or organisation that feeds the homeless or families that can't eat."
While we're merrily tossing tonnes of perfectly good food in the bin, malnutrition is becoming a becoming a very real problem. Latest figures show that there's been a 19 percent increase in malnutrition-related hospitalisation in the UK over the past 12 months. Rickets has returned. "We feed 125 children a day," says Brett. And that's just in Maidenhead. "We're not allowed to know the identity of the children due to confidentiality laws but we take the breakfasts into schools."
I spent the morning with Brett filling bags and speaking to people who came in. Everyone had a different story. One woman, there with her kids, was too embarrassed to give her name. "I'm just using it while my benefits are sorted out. I've got two children and it's for three of us. The benefits don't cover everything, especially when you need school stuff and bus fares things."
Outside I met a woman called Sarah, having a chat and cup of tea with the volunteers. "I've got depression and can't work. The money I get doesn't help enough so it's brilliant having this. I'm here every week and don't know what I'd do without it until I can get back on my feet and get a job. It was a bit weird the first time but now I enjoy coming down. Everyone is lovely—it's like a little community."
There were also two men in their mid-50s holding court and bemoaning the decline of the country. One—who also didn't want to be named—was dressed like an accountant. "I've lived in Maidenhead for 30 years and I've always worked. It's just unfortunate that I've now got a blinking heart problem and will be off work for six month's at least. I only get 53 quid a week which I've got to use to pay my rent, my TV licence, council tax. I'm left with about two quid per week for food."
Helping a woman load a big bag of food into her Mondeo who was not only taking supplies back to her six kids and newly jobless husband, but also for two elderly neighbours, she said, "The food bank helps my family so I want to do my bit and help them." Her image and apparent togetherness took me back. I'd naively expected lines of people in tattered clothes resembling Huckleberry Finn. This is far, far from the case.
"You see you can't judge people on what they look like," says Pat, one of the volunteers. "I've got this guy, Gary, who drives a new car and parks here every week. The ear bashing I get from people about him using the food bank is unbelievable. The car is from his company but he still hasn't got any money of his own—his outgoings are far more than what he's actually paid. Another guy comes here who works at BA but, because he's a single father, his outgoings are so much he ends up with minus £6 a month."
As things started to die down, two young guys in hoodies were smoking by the door, having picked up the last of the parcels. They looked like they should be bunking of college. "I use to be in a house and in work," says one, who doesn't give me his name but tells me he's 23, "but the gaffer screwed me over. Now I've got no work and no home." Still, he doesn't look defeated. "Mate, if it wasn't for this place, I wouldn't be able to see myself right."
With the black dog of austerity measures taking ever bigger bites out of what remains of the welfare state, it seems the only hope for the next generation who find themselves two feet below the bread line are big-hearted volunteers like the ones I met in Maidenhead, giving up their time to feed the hungry in your local high streets.