Thousands of Bristolians struggle to pay for food
Is the recession leaving Bristol families hungry? David Clensy looks at the growing problem of food poverty in the city.
AROUND one in every 16 people in Bristol have been forced to skip at least one meal a week just so their family can eat.
That’s 26,500 people in the city going hungry because of financial hardships, according to the charity Oxfam.
It sounds like the kind of story you might expect to hear of life in the Great Depression of the 1920s, but not in modern day Bristol.
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More than 800 have used a Bristol food bank, which has given out 4.5 tonnes of donated food to struggling families in the last year.
And just over half of Bristolians feed their family on less than £70 a week, according to Oxfam’s survey of the city.
Unemployed hairdresser Anne-Mackenzie admits she and her husband often miss meals in order to make sure they can afford to feed the children.
“I don’t think people realise just how tough living on benefits can be,” the 41-year-old from Sea Mills says. “Nobody lives on benefits for the fun of it.”
But Anne-Marie and her family are not alone.
With restrictions on benefits being tightened, and food prices on the rise, it doesn’t take much for a family like the Mackenzies to find themselves reaching crisis point.
“I haven’t worked for eight years, because I suffer from a debilitating muscular condition called fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue,” Anne-Marie says. “My husband, who is a software engineer, has not been able to work in recent years because he acts as my full-time carer.”
Anne-Marie has three school-age daughters, as well as two older teenage sons. But it was when one of her teenage sons left full-time education earlier this year, that the family began to suffer dramatically.
“Because he had left the education system, our benefits for him were cut, so we found ourselves £110 worse off each week,” she explains. “That was enough to push us over the edge, and we reached crisis point.
“I had the humiliating experience of having to ask my daughter’s school, Oasis Academy Brightstowe, if they could cover the cost of her school uniform, because we simply couldn’t stretch to it.
“One of the teachers became so concerned about our level of poverty, she recommended us to the Bristol North West Food Bank, which was able to give us some free food to keep us going through the worst weeks.”
The Christian charity was founded in March by Emma Murray, who was shocked by the food poverty she discovered among Bristol’s jobless when she moved here from Oxfordshire the previous year.
“I had helped to run a local church food bank when I lived in Abingdon, so I thought I should try to set up something similar here in Bristol,” Emma explains, as she leads the way into the food bank’s storeroom at Beachley Walk Community Centre in Shirehampton.
The shelves are packed with everything from boxes of cereal to tins of fruit.
“We rely on food donations from members of the public, local businesses and church groups,” she says. “A lot of schools pass their harvest festival collection food to us too.
“Then we pack up emergency hampers we can hand out to families in times of crisis. Sometimes there has been a delay in receiving their benefits, sometimes their benefits have just been stretched too far and they find themselves without a means to buy food to put on the family’s table.
“These aren’t just unemployed council house families,” she adds.
“Increasingly we have professional people coming in who have lost their jobs suddenly in the recession, fallen on very hard times, and find themselves with nowhere else to turn.”
The charity works with more than 50 agencies to be given referrals – including GPs, health visitors, schools and job centres.
“We give the agencies vouchers that they can fill in and give to the individuals, so we know they are a genuine deserving cause. When they come in we chat to them and put them at their ease, while another volunteer is packing up an emergency food hamper for them. You have to be delicate with these people – they’re going through a horrendous crisis in their life, and you have to be aware of how they must feel.”
Anne-Marie admits asking for charity food felt like her lowest point.
“I remember standing outside for ten minutes trying to pluck up the courage to go inside. It felt so humiliating to have to admit that you couldn’t afford to feed your children properly.
“But when I did walk inside everyone was so friendly, they completely put me at my ease. I’m incredibly grateful for that humanity.”
Oxfam’s South West spokesman Gurvinder Sidhu says all of the 150 food banks around the country have seen an increase in demand over the past six months – with some reporting a 100 per cent increase in applications for help on the previous year.
“Because so many people are living on precariously low incomes, managing household budgets is pretty much like a daily tightrope walk,” Gurvinder says.
“Trying to balance the spiralling costs of food and fuel means that anything else people may need to budget for – like paying for their child to go on a school trip or fixing a broken washing machine – are simply out of the question.”
A staggering 81 per cent of people in the region surveyed by Oxfam say the rising cost of food has made the biggest difference to the amount they spend on food, with 41 per cent of people surveyed having been forced to buy cheaper food. Thirty per cent say that the cost of healthier food is too expensive, and they tend to go for cheaper less nutritious junk food instead.
Anne-Marie is hoping her family will get on to a more even keel now her eldest son, who is 20, has signed up to join the Army – it will be “one less mouth to feed”.
But she says Christmas will still be a Spartan affair in their household.
“I’m trying my best to give my children a happy Christmas by making them Christmas presents,” she says. “I’m knitting dolls and making bracelets for them to open on Christmas morning.”
In its first year, the Bristol North West Food Bank has already helped more than 800 families, handing out 4.5 tonnes of donated food to homes across Sea Mills, Shirehampton, Lawrence Weston, Avonmouth and Southmead.
More recently the service has been extended to help families in Stoke Bishop, Henbury, Horfield and Brentry.
“We’re just trying to do what we can, because the need for this kind of help is clearly growing,” Emma says. “Often people don’t realise just how dramatic the extent of food poverty has become in this country, it can be a hidden problem until they’re faced with a financial crisis in their own family.”
To donate long-dated food stuffs to the charity, visit the website at www.bristolnwfoodbank.org.uk.