Words: Mark Woods

The Mail on Sunday’s (MoS) attempted exposé on foodbanks prompted unprecedented donations to Christian charity The Trussell Trust’s Help Crack UK Hunger campaign.

The paper sent three journalists claiming to be in need to foodbanks and ran an article headlined ‘No ID, no checks…and vouchers for sob stories: the truth behind those shock food bank claims’. The MoS claimed to show that people were able to take advantage of foodbanks because they failed to run proper checks.

In a backlash against the article, The Trussell Trust saw donations to its campaign rise from £2,000 to nearly £100,000 in a week.

In an open letter to the MoS, Lizzie Green from Hastings, who blogs as squidgetsmum, wrote of her young son’s wish to donate to a foodbank. Her blog post had 45,000 views in only 24 hours. Green wrote: ‘My little boy made a dent in the darkness the other day. I pray one day your eyes are open to the God of all compassion, and you can join him.’

She told Premier Christianity: ‘People were flooding in with their support and encouragement and donations – and, oh the stories! Stories of people who’d used the foodbanks, and felt so awful about it, but had been made to feel so loved and cherished… I sat there at our computer watching all this come in, and I knew God was in it.’

The Trussell Trust, which works through local churches, runs the biggest network of foodbanks in the UK. Around 400 have been set up so far, with more continuing to open. The trust said that 913,000 adults and children had been provided with emergency food parcels in 2013-14, compared with 347,000 the previous year.

Campaign donations rose from £2,000 to nearly £100,000 in a week

Chair Chris Mould said: ‘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 foodbank, people who are too ashamed to seek help or the large number of people who are only just coping by eating less and buying cheap food.’

Mould has also called for a ‘more thoughtful approach to the administration of the benefits regime and sanctions in particular’. This follows the results of a survey of the trust’s foodbanks revealing that 83% of users said that benefits ‘sanctioning’ – when benefits are stopped for reasons ranging from previous overpayment to failure to attend an interview – was causing a rise in numbers turning to them.

Church leaders responded to the survey with a fierce denunciation of the effects of the government’s benefits policy. An open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and opposition leader Ed Miliband was signed by more than 600 leaders, headed by the Archbishop of Wales, the Rt Rev Barry Morgan.

Reflecting on The Trussell Trust’s statistic of 913,000 claimants, it said: ‘This figure, shocking as it is, is far from the total number of people going hungry in our country today – from those too ashamed to visit their local foodbank to those many families not in crisis but ever more worried about keeping the cupboards full. One in four is cutting portion sizes and half are cutting their household food budgets.’

Separately, leaders of the Methodist Church, Baptist Union of Great Britain and United Reformed Church issued a joint statement of concern. The president of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee, said: ‘These figures should shock and anger us. Hunger should not and need not be a problem in a rich country like the UK – and yet clearly it is. We thank God for foodbanks, which provide a vital lifeline to people who would otherwise be forced to go hungry.’

‘[More than] 900,000 people needing the help of a foodbank should lead the government to examine why the post-Welfare Reform benefits system allows so many people to go hungry,’ added the faith and society team leader for the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Rev Stephen Keyworth.

‘It is a great testimony that so many people have given up time and money to meet this need – it is a great tragedy that so many more families find themselves in such need,’ he said.

Critics of the foodbank movement have claimed that their existence creates a need and that if free food is available people will take advantage of it. However, supporters reply that claimants have to be referred by a professional and that for most a foodbank is a last resort. According to The Trussell Trust, while there was only a 45% increase in the number of new Trussell Trust foodbanks last year, there was a 163% increase in foodbank use.

Elizabeth Mayton, manager of the Norwood and Brixton Foodbank, told Premier Christianity that the foodbank was used by a wide variety of people for a range of reasons. ‘Some people are paying massive amounts of debt off,’ she said. ‘Some are on low incomes or their benefits are sanctioned and then it might be a small thing like needing new shoes or the fridge breaks down.’

She added: ‘We have grown to understand that different people live different lives and that some are quite chaotic, perhaps over two or three generations. Some are caught in the system and can’t get out – they are low paid or on short contracts. There is no magic bullet. They need support on a range of things.’