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Cost of living crisis: faith and food banks combine to tackle destitution and its causes

The Trussell Trust wants food banks in its network to reduce the need for their services. Robert Wright finds out why the trust regrets they still distribute so much food.

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.

 

A man stands in front of a food bank's shelves of cereals and boxes labelled by foot type.
Howard Wardle at Eastbourne's food bank.

When Howard Wardle was making plans to set up a food bank in Eastbourne, in East Sussex, he received little support from his fellow church leaders. Speaking in the industrial estate warehouse that has been the food bank’s headquarters since 2017, Wardle recalls how at a meeting called to discuss the idea he largely encountered bafflement. At the time, Wardle was pastor of the town’s Community Church. 

“They said, ‘There isn’t a need in the town – you’re wasting your time doing it’,” Wardle says of the meeting in 2011. 

Wardle nevertheless received encouragement from Eastbourne’s Citizens’ Advice Bureau, from the major of the local Salvation Army congregation, the local authority’s social services – and the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest organiser of food banks. The food bank, of which Wardle is now chief executive, last year handed out 280,000 meals. 

Yet for Wardle and the Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s national chief executive, it is a matter of regret that its members are distributing so much food – organisations affiliated with the Trussell Trust handed out 2.99mn parcels in the year to March 2023. The figure was a 37 per cent increase on the year before, a rise largely down to the cost of living crisis started by the spikes in energy and food prices following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

“It’s incredibly worrying and upsetting that so many people – more people – are having to come to food banks,” Revie says. 

Workers at the Eastbourne Foodbank and others nationally are following a strategy of campaigning for policies that seek to ensure no one needs to seek emergency food support. They also employ staff who help clients to navigate the benefits system, prepare for work or take other steps to find a permanent solution to their problems. 

“We were absolutely resolute that enough is enough. We needed to do whatever we needed to do to reduce the number of people needing to come to food banks.” 

Emma Revie

The Trussell Trust centrally provides organisational support for affiliated food banks but deliberately does not undertake functions such as purchasing food. 

Revie says it adopted the strategy of trying to put itself out of business five years ago, after experiencing significant growth in demand for its services. The trust was founded in 1997 in Salisbury by Carol and Paddy Henderson, a Christian couple. Christian principles have been core to the trust’s operations ever since. 

“We reached a decision point where we either had to accept that this situation was likely to increase and would always be needed or we had to decide that that was not acceptable and change the way we thought about our work,” Revie says. 

The trust recognised how inadequate food parcels were to the fundamental needs that member food banks were seeing among clients, she adds. 

“The reason people are coming to food banks is they don’t have enough money to afford the essentials,” Revie says. “They know it’s not going to put credit on the gas meter. They know it’s not going to pay for school shoes.” 

The organisation had to decide whether it accepted as inevitable that so many people needed its services or would reorient itself towards working to end that need, she adds. 

“We were absolutely resolute that enough is enough,” Revie says. “We needed to do whatever we needed to do to reduce the number of people needing to come to food banks.” 

“We’re not just here to get people on benefits. If we think they can work, we try to encourage people to get into work.” 

Robert Crockford

In Eastbourne, the strategy of reducing dependence on food banks has been in place from the start, according to Wardle. 

“When we started, we felt it was one thing to have a food bank giving out food but another to have people not need to come to food banks,” he says. 

After receiving some grant funding, the food bank took on staff to help clients to resolve their financial problems and ensure they were receiving all the welfare benefits to which they were entitled. 

“We built a welfare benefits team, a debt team and a medical benefits team so that we could help clients,” Wardle says. 

Robert Crockford, the food bank’s senior advocacy officer, says he helps food bank clients to navigate issues such as the two-child limit and the overall benefits cap that restrict the amount benefits recipients can receive. 

The two-child limit stops parents from receiving child benefit for any more than two children if the additional children were born after 2017. The benefit cap - £283.71 for a single person living outside Greater London – was introduced in 2013. It limits the total amount a person or family can receive from the system. 

Crockford explains that he seeks to help clients to explore whether they count as disabled, a carer or have some other status that might enable them to receive higher benefits. 

The group also works with People Matter, a charity that helps to prepare people for work. 

“We’re not just here to get people on benefits,” Crockford says. “If we think they can work, we try to encourage people to get into work.” 

Revie bemoans the overall inadequacy of the benefits system, pointing out that many recipients of Universal Credit – the main income-support benefit for most people who are unemployed or on low incomes in the UK – cannot afford food. 

“When almost half the people on that benefit are unable to afford food, something systematically is failing,” she says. “So do you tackle the symptoms or do you tackle the actual problem?” 

That emphasis on tackling problems is clear at another food bank affiliated with the trust – in Kingston, on the south-western edge of London. 

Ian Jacobs, director of Kingston Foodbank, says his organisation works closely with Citizens’ Advice to try to develop permanent solutions for people seeking help. 

“We do deep-dive investigations into people’s circumstances to try to see if we can get more money into people’s pockets,” he says. 

Kingston Foodbank currently operates six foodbank centres and one pantry, where referred clients can select and buy reduced-price food. Jacobs says he would like one day to reverse the proportion, so that it operates six pantries and one food bank. 

Jacobs, a member of the Doxa Deo Community Church, an independent evangelical church, also makes it clear that many volunteers are working at the food bank out of Christian conviction. 

“We’re always open to pray with clients,” he says. 

Revie says the trust is “deeply rooted” in the local churches. 

“Many of our volunteers and staff are motivated in the work that they do by their Christian faith,” she says. “Our values of community, compassion, dignity and justice are deeply rooted in the Christian faith.” 

Revie points out that the trust was founded by Christians and that its network grew through approaches by individual churches to the trust. 
"We as an organisation work with people of all faiths and none and we certainly support people of all faiths and none," she says. "But we are deeply rooted in the local churches and many of our volunteers and staff are motivated in the work that they do by their Christian faith,” she says. 
Faith has a "very special role to play" in the trust's work, Revie adds. 
 “Our values of community, compassion, dignity and justice are deeply rooted in the Christian faith," she says. 

“We don’t believe there should be food banks in today’s society,” Jacobs says. “That’s why we do all the extra work to make sure people aren’t dependent on the food bank.” 

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Change
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Politics
6 min read

Camden: what’s up in Keir’s backyard?

The new Prime Minister’s constituency has valuable lessons for the country.

Simon Walsh is a communications consultant, journalist and non-stipendiary priest in the Diocese of London.

Kier Starmer walks along a residential development's path with two other people.
Starmer and local councillors in Camden.

‘What good ever came out of Nazareth?’ was asked of Jesus. The same might now be said of Camden, which lies at the heart of the Holborn & St Pancras constituency. A safe Labour seat since the 1980s, its present incumbent is Sir Keir Starmer who has been handed the keys to Downing Street in the General Election.

His wallet apparently has on it ‘Take me home to Kentish Town’. Two buses link Kentish Town, where he lives, with Whitehall – a route of about four miles. He will go into government with a very full in-tray, and many of them are issues he knows first-hand from his own constituency. I know them too, having lived there for 20 years.

Sometimes I cover services for a clergy colleague in the nearby parish of St Mary’s, Somers Town. The church is on Eversholt Street which runs along the eastern side of Euston station, incidentally the capital’s first mainline railway terminus. Last year, as I arrived for a mass one rainy Saturday morning, a random group of people sheltered in the doorway. They were, I discovered, addicts waiting for a drugs drop. Towards the end of mass, one of the group – a young woman – came into the back of church and found a pew in which to start preparing her fix. Once I had disrobed, I asked if she wouldn’t mind doing it somewhere else.

Another time, in the same church, a young woman from Spain was asking for money. She had answered a job advert on social media to come and work on a chicken farm. Having arrived and paid her accommodation for a week, she found there was no chicken farm, and trying to find other work was almost impossible because of paperwork. What could we do to help? The church itself is in dire need of financial support too.

St Mary’s Flats... were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity.

Somers Town was transformed 100 years ago when its energetic parish priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe, created the first housing association. Dismayed by the squalor of Victorian tenements, he set about raising funds for The St Pancras House Improvement Society. Jellicoe was only in his mid-20s but had a solid Anglo-Catholic background founded on mission and a heart for the poor. The cramped and filthy conditions with extreme poverty were ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace’ – for him, the opposite to the sacraments.

By the time Jellicoe moved from the parish in 1934, the slums had been cleared and a number of the new blocks built, the first being St Mary’s Flats, with others given saints’ names. They were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity. Tragically, having worn himself out he died at the age of 36. His legacy is one of praxis – active Christianity meeting social problems where they are – and his model became the blueprint for many other housing associations since.

No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close. 

The area remains a swirl of social problems in addition to the drugs. Mental health issues are rife. There are plans to redevelop St Pancras Hospital which houses mental health services. The area suffers from traffic and noise pollution, and lacks communal spaces. Camden Council recently saw fit take one corner of a public green in Somers Town on which to build a tower block of multi-million pound flats, handy for nearby St Pancras Station. Crime rates are high with muggings and mobile phone thefts a daily reality. Last year, as mourners left a funeral one Saturday afternoon at St Aloysius Church just a few streets down from St Mary’s, a drive-by-shooting injured six people. Starmer called the incident ‘appalling’ and spoke of ‘extra patrols and community support’ after a conversation with police.

The area has become highly expensive. Local businesses are being priced out by increased rents. Very little social housing has been built this century. The average house price in NW1, which encompasses the Nash terraces of Regents Park, the council blocks and social housing of Somers Town, is £1.3 million. A two-bed flat is in excess of half a million quid. No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close – four in as many years recently. In his acceptance speech in Camden Council’s offices near St Pancras station, close to the world-renowned Crick Institute and Facebook’s UK headquarters, Starmer namechecked the mythical ‘girl from Somers Town’ and his hope for her future.

Charles Dickens went to school around here and knew these streets well. His 1848 novel Dombey & Son detailed the destruction and chaos caused in the area by the building of the railway line through it. 175 years later, it has been HS2, the great White Elephant which has dug up streets, seen whole blocks of accommodation and hotels demolished, diverted roads, and axed much-loved institutions like the Bree Louise pub. There has been no benefit to locals so far (quite the opposite, in fact) and it is a stain on both Labour and Conservative administrations. Sir Keir says he is furious at the ‘big hole’ left by the down-tools project. There is fear now that the redundant land will be subject to a ‘gold rush’ as developers circle to pick up some prime real estate.

Interviewed in June by the Camden New Journal, Starmer said: ‘The government has earmarked money for Euston. I want to see that money and obviously, if we come into power, we’ll see through all this money – and not stripped away from other projects which is the usual trick.’ He also said: ‘The other thing is we need housing. Camden desperately needs housing as many places do. So we will use it – if we are privileged to come into power – as part of our plan for 1.5 million homes.’

His manifesto has five pledges: 

  • Kickstart economic growth 

The cost-of-living crisis is biting hard here and the inequalities are stark. People need real money.

  • Make Britain a clean energy superpower 

It’s going to need more than a few on-street charging points for electric vehicles. And the carbon footprint of that HS2 project? 

  • Take back our streets 

He wants to halve crime rates but London has around 106 crimes per 1,000 people and his own constituency feels less safe than it used to. 

  • Break down barriers to opportunity 

Camden already ranks highly in the deprivation index where barriers are concerned: schools, homes, jobs… 

  •  Build an NHS fit for the future 

Again, the hospitals and GP services are cracking – high demand combined with under-investment is deadly. 

A prophet is not welcome in his own country, it was said. Although the new Prime Minister was elected with a majority in his home seat, it was down to 18,884 votes from the 2019 endorsement of 36,641 votes – a drop of almost 50%. In this election, an Independent candidate called Andrew Feinstein polled 7,312 votes with his pledge to improve life for local residents. Starmer’s constituents will be counting on him to fix the nation along with the problems on their own streets. Otherwise, safe seat or not, he may no longer be welcome in Camden either.