One of Britain’s largest food charities says that more than 900,000 people visited its food banks last year. The Wednesday report comes as 600 religious leaders urge the government to take action against the country's growing hunger problem.
The new information shows the shocking number of people reliant on food handouts in the UK, largely because of harsh new benefits sanctions.
According to The Trussell Trust, Britain's largest food bank charity, 913,138 people received emergency food aid from the organization in 2013-2014, compared to just 346,992 in 2012-2013 – marking an increase of 163 percent.
A coalition of anti-poverty charities, including The Trussell Trust, says the figures show that Britain is breaking international law by violating the basic human right to food. There are 346 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK, with three new ones opening every week. Ninety percent of the food given out by The Trussell Trust's food banks is donated by the public. An estimated 30,000 people volunteered to work with the organization in 2013-14.
The report by the charity says the government’s use of sanctions against benefits recipients is becoming “increasingly harsh” and that half of those referred to its food banks in 2013-14 were due to benefits changes, delays, or punishments. Tougher penalties for people claiming jobseekers allowance were introduced last October, meaning that benefits can now be withheld for a minimum of four weeks.
Rising living costs, underemployment, low pay, and static incomes have also contributed to the increased demand, according to the charity.
Chris Mould, the chairman of The Trussell Trust, said in a statement that the figures were just “the tip of the iceberg.”
“Perhaps most worrying of all, this figure is just the tip of the iceberg of UK food poverty. It doesn’t include those helped by other emergency food providers, those living in towns where there is no food bank, people who are too ashamed to seek help or the large number of people who are just coping by eating less and buying cheaper food,” he said.
Separately, 600 church leaders from all major religions – including 45 Anglican bishops – are writing to the government on Wednesday, calling for urgent action on food poverty in Britain.
The letter calls on the main political parties in Westminster to support the findings of a newly created all-party parliamentary inquiry into the causes of food poverty. It also calls on British society to “begin rising to the challenge of this national crisis.”
The Bishop of Oxford will be among those who will present the letter to David Cameron’s constituency office in Witney, Oxfordshire.
The president of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee, told the Independent that “hunger should not and need not be a problem in a rich country like the UK – and yet clearly it is.”
It is the second time in three months that church leaders have publicly urged minsters to get to grips with the extent to which food poverty and hunger reflect the hardship faced by low-income families. Many faith groups are involved in frontline poverty projects, and are therefore firsthand witnesses of the growing problem.
The Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, told the Guardian that Wednesday’s initiative was largely down to frustration at not getting a ministerial response to the last letter.
“What we are saying to the government is can you at least acknowledge that there is a real problem here,” he said.
A public vigil will be held outside parliament on Wednesday by members of the End Hunger Fast campaign. Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner will be present to give the first public support from the Jewish community for the campaign.
A separate letter signed by 33 Jewish religious leaders will be published Thursday and will call on the prime minister to ensure that no families in the UK go hungry.
Rachael Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said that “food banks have become a shameful symbol of David Cameron’s government’s failure to tackle the cost of living crisis.”
Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, said it is time that ministers “stop hiding behind the Tory myth that says the increase in food banks is driving demand, it is time ministers got a grip and took this issue seriously.”
But a government spokesman insisted that the lives of the UK’s poorest families are continuing to improve.
“The truth is that the employment rate is the highest it’s been for five years and our reforms will improve the lives of the poorest in our communities by promoting work and helping people to lift themselves out of poverty,” the spokesman said.