Counting the costs of living [WFJ #19]
Frome’s food bank has reached a point of “cataclysm”
Last month, Mendip District Council became the first local authority in the UK to declare the cost of living crisis as an ‘emergency’. Why? To signal and address the rural poverty towns like Frome are experiencing, and provide what they described as ‘wake up call for the government’.
The council saw what we all saw – the cost of petrol was accelerating; energy bills were trebling. Food prices were, and still are, bearing some of the largest hits. Pasta now costs the consumer 50% more than it did the year before, with bread and beef mince both commanding a 16% increase in price in that time. As a result, the average grocery bill for the year is expected to be at least £271 dearer than usual.1
It is an omnishambles that’s to blame, consisting of poor harvests, increased synthetic fertiliser costs, lack of corn and soybean for animal fodder, bird flu, and a conflict in Europe wherein cargo ships are under blockade and flak-jacketed farmers are dodging landmines (Russia and Ukraine are thought to cumulatively produce 64% of the world’s sunflower oil, and 23% of the world’s wheat).2 All of this means yields are lower, so prices increase to cover losses.
If wages and welfare benefits in the UK ticked upwards accordingly, all this would be back page news. But they’re not, and the crisis is pushing more and more people towards destitution. “There are people who never imagined they'd need a food bank in their lives,” says Bob Ashford, the Chair of Trustees for Fair Frome. “And find themselves already in debt, and now along comes a massive fuel bill which they just can't hack – that bill which tips them over the edge.”
In an ideal world, food banks – like the one Fair Frome manages behind the town hall – would not exist. But, in recent times, they’re needed more than ever. In 2010, 61,000 emergency food parcels were distributed from the Trussell Trusts’ food banks around the country alone. In 2021, that figure was 2.1 million.3 This year, it may be even higher – usage of Frome’s food bank, for example, more than doubled from April 2021 to April 2022. “The food bank started as a small operation but surged during the pandemic,” says Bob. “And now, well, it's pretty cataclysmic.”4
The food bank’s so in demand that Fair Frome are urgently seeking a new premises to stock and distribute food, but finding somewhere big enough, central enough, and affordable enough in town has so far been fruitless. In the meantime, the charity’s other food projects are running at full speed. These include putting on free lunches during school holidays, and ‘Food at Five’, where volunteers cook up hot dinners three times a week for those on benefits or low incomes.
As is increasingly the issue though, food poverty is not experienced exclusively by these groups. “There's this myth that people who use food banks are very poor people out of work,” says Bob. “Some are, but around 40% of people who use the food bank, both nationally and in Frome, are in full time employment. They just don't get enough to survive on.”
The crisis hitting middle income earners has wider ramifications. Fair Frome often purchases items like butter, milk, and eggs for its food bank users, but they’re finding the more people affected by the cost of living, the more costly the food bank is to run and the fewer the donations coming in. “Demand is going up while donations are going down because people can't afford to give food anymore,” Bob says.
The vast majority of donations come from what Bob calls ‘invisible donors’ – that is, people who anonymously drop off food at supermarket collection points in town. Typically, these consist of tinned or dried items, but Fair Frome is conscious of making fresh food more available. “People that come to the food bank are offered vouchers for a local butchers, a fruit and veg shop in town, and also a bread shop,” says Bob. At the moment, Fair Frome partner with SK Fruits, Cayfords, and Parsons bakery as part of the scheme. “It helps support the local businesses too,” Bob says. “And we’d like to do more of it. Vallis Veg and Frome Food Hub also donate food to us, which is brilliant.”
A £30 donation pays for a week's worth of fresh fruit and veg for five families in crisis
Stemming the tide
On the 26th May, The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £650 one-off payment for families on means-tested benefits, along with other support packages including a £200 handout for all energy bill payers in the UK. A £5bn windfall tax on energy companies will help foot the bill. The news reflected that the government recognised the crisis, and wanted to help Britain’s struggling citizens. But is it enough?
“The problem is it's a one-off,” Bob says. “Okay, £650 is going to help this autumn if you're on benefits, but what about next March?”
A windfall tax is – however short-term and however meaningful – one of many solutions proposed to help those in need. Others include investing in food poverty alliances and food partnerships, and enforcing the Real Living Wage of £9.90 per hour – 71 pence and 40 pence more than the government’s Minimum Wage and National Living Wage respectively.5
The crisis has also rekindled discussions around implementing Universal Basic Income, which would give every citizen an income regardless of whether they’re in work. “UBI would provide people with financial shelter to buy food and not rely on the increasing network of food banks,” social policy lecturer David Beck was recently quoted, adding that “we should be shocked” there are towns in the UK with more food banks than supermarkets.
Ultimately, Bob says money – whether through welfare benefits or wage rises in line with inflation – is the only thing he can see will bring an end to the crisis. Though there are things that can help along the way, such as the BanktheFood app, which Fair Frome have recently adopted to help communicate to donors what kind of food the food bank needs, how much of it, and where it can be dropped off locally.
Pre-2010, food banks were a relatively rare sight, deployed as an emergency measure for people to access food. A dozen years later, governments are incresingly reliant on them as a means to feed their populace. And, with limited financial help thus far from said powers, “Things are only going to get a lot worse,” says Bob.
Food banks like the one in Frome are keeping hundreds of thousands of households from going hungry. But if food poverty is a rising tide, they are what hands out the lifejackets – not what quells the storm.
Chip in to help Frome’s most hungry. “The only sustainable solution is cash,” says Bob Ashford, Fair Frome’s Chair of Trustees
Some would consider this a conservative estimate: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/supermarket-costs-prices-inflation-2022-b2090221.html
Oh and 19% of the world’s barley: https://ourworldindata.org/ukraine-russia-food
2.1 million is a huge number, but only accounts for around half of th UK’s food bank total: https://www.trusselltrust.org/2022/04/27/food-banks-provide-more-than-2-1-million-food-parcels-to-people-across-the-uk-in-past-year-according-to-new-figures-released-by-the-trussell-trust/
Bob on the food bank’s origins: “Fair Frome started 2013. There was a sort of food bank run by Trussell Trust, but it was based in Warminster. So they were collecting food in frome, taking it to Warminster, processing it, and bringing it back to Frome. So we thought, why don't we do it locally, with Frome people?”
Food businesses like Nook, Hesperian, River House, and Home are some of the few accredited Real Living Wage employers in Frome: https://www.livingwage.org.uk/accredited-living-wage-employers