By Sylvia Hoy
London (AFP) – For many struggling families, the elderly and the homeless, the Michel Dornley food center in east London has been a lifeline. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Britain, she has been collecting surplus groceries from supermarkets and distributing them to people who cannot buy food.
While the threat of the virus has subsided, the need for food banks in Britain has risen. The skyrocketing rise is pushing energy and food bills by the millions into deeper financial distress, and food banks and community groups like Dornleys across the UK say they don’t have enough to feed the growing numbers of desperate people knocking on their doors.
“We’re struggling as is, but now we’re in a bowl of bubbles. Tasting the turkey and onion curries to serve people lately,” she said, she said, “We used to be able to run until 4 p.m., but now by 2:30, all the food is gone.”
Dornelli provides free groceries and hot meals each week to several dozen uniformed employees in Hackney, an area within London with high rates of inequality: nearly half of all children there live in poverty. She says that since the winter, at least 30 to 40 new people have been referred to her.
The cost of food and fuel in the UK has risen sharply, with inflation hitting 9% in April – the highest in 40 years. In the same month, millions of households saw their annual energy bills rise 54%, to an average of 700 extra pounds ($863) a year per household. Energy prices are expected to rise again in October, as the Russian war in Ukraine and a post-pandemic demand rebound have pushed up oil and natural gas prices.
Food companies have had to pass on higher costs to shoppers, who already have less in their pockets because wages fail to keep pace with price increases. Low-income people dependent on the state’s welfare were the hardest hit. In October, the British government stopped paying the £20 ($25) per week bonus offered during the pandemic.
Other parts of the world are also struggling with rising inflation. Europe has seen a spike in consumer prices, causing a shock to the grocery store. In the United States, food banks say rising food and gas prices and general inflation are increasing demand for their support, while labor and distribution costs are rising and donations are slowing.
“I think that’s the way life goes. But it shouldn’t be that severe,” said Dave Anderson, a regular at Dornley.
The 62-year-old had been unable to work or take care of himself since he had heart surgery and was not left without electricity or gas at home until volunteers found him. The 118 pounds ($145) of benefits he gets every two weeks doesn’t go away.
“I didn’t even look at my bills because I thought I wanted to sit there and cry,” Dornley said. “I don’t understand why politicians would allow this to happen.”
Things are expected to get worse in the coming months. The Bank of England expects inflation to reach 10% by autumn, and its governor, Andrew Bailey, has warned of a “very real income shock” from energy prices and a “horrific” rise in food prices due to the war in Ukraine.
A recent report from the International Monetary Fund said the UK is expected to have the slowest economic growth outside the Group of Seven leading democracies in 2023 as the war restores the global economic recovery from the pandemic.
“All of our organizations are reaching out to us saying, ‘We need more food,'” more families are getting closer to us. “We need more food,” said Rachel Ledwith, head of community engagement at The Felix Project, a charity that redistributes surplus groceries from the food industry to about 1,000 charities and schools in All over London: “The people we see don’t have much to make ends meet.”
She delivered enough packages to prepare 30 million meals last year, and her kitchen produces thousands of meals — like broccoli soup made with stems — every day. But this is not enough anywhere.
“I think we’re seeing a 25% to 50% increase in demand — so if the organization is supporting 50 people, they are now seeing close to 75,” Ledwith said. “It is real pressure – there is still a huge amount of need out there in London. We still have a waiting list of several hundred organizations that have asked for food that we have not yet been able to eat.”
The picture is similar across Britain.
The Trussell Trust, which manages more than half of all UK food banks, said last winter was the busiest outside of 2020 – the peak of the pandemic. The charity said its food banks delivered more than 2.1 million food parcels in the UK last year, up 14% from the same period in 2019. Of those, 830,000 were children.
The Food Foundation, another charity, said a recent survey showed that about one in seven adults said they or someone they lived with had skipped meals, ate smaller portions or went hungry throughout the day because they couldn’t afford food.
“The situation is rapidly shifting from an economic crisis to a health crisis,” said Ann Taylor, director of the charity. The government needs to realize that the boat is sinking for many families, and it needs to be fixed. Rescue of emergency food parcels will not work.”
Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has come under fire for not doing enough. Despite the cost-of-living crisis that has dominated political debates and recent local elections, the government has not introduced any new support measures in its annual legislative agenda.
Dornley fears the crisis will really start to unfold when kids can’t get free meals during the summer holidays and then when it gets colder.
“What happens on summer vacation, when you have five screaming children at home? You can’t feed them anyway, so what are you going to do when you run out of gas and electricity and you have no food?” she said. “That’s when I think we’re going to see the rise.”