The very idea that 1 in 8 people in the UK would be struggling to afford to eat in 2019 seems like something ripped straight from a George Orwell novel.
According to the Department of Work and Pensions, there are 13.44 million people living in poverty in the UK, 21% of the population.
The reality is that the number is almost certainly higher, it’s just impossible to put an official figure on it.
Without seeing the day-to-day running of these essential facilities, it’s easy to have misconceptions on what a food charity actually is, who is using it and the kind of services they provide.
I spent a day with the Greater Manchester division of FareShare, the UK’s largest food charity dedicated to fighting hunger and food waste. FareShare Greater Manchester saves excess food, which would otherwise go to waste, and diverts it to frontline charities such as homeless shelters, women’s refuges and school breakfast clubs.
Our first stop was St James’ Church in Salford, which converts a back room into a pantry offering fresh produce to those who need it most. Greater Manchester alone has 620,000 people living in poverty and has some of the highest rates of child poverty in England.
FareShare GM provides food to 250 charities, which equates to an estimated 26,760 vulnerable people accessing FareShare food each week in Greater Manchester.
Last year, they provided over three million meals to people in need.
One of the things that caught me so off-guard was that those volunteering in the pantry weren’t simply giving out food. These people almost become counsellors, a shoulder to lean on for those who may not have anyone else.
“There is a lot to it but it’s a good feeling when you help people. There’s so much to this place most people wouldn’t realise unless you sat down and spoke to the people. It cheers people up, having that one bright face to say ‘how’s your day going’ and making you feel like you’re not invisible.” – Scott, volunteer at St James’ Church.
During one of my interviews, one person came into the building, clearly lost and struggling to explain what was wrong due to a language barrier. The guys running the centre made sure he had somewhere to stay for the night but not before filling up a bag of food for him.
The second big thing was the sense of community that is generated within the centre. After speaking with Scott, one of the volunteers at the Salford centre, it became evident that the social aspect was just as vital to the wellbeing of its users. Whether it was a refugee who had been in the country a few days or a full family, everyone was made to feel welcome.
People would stop by, take no food but stick around for a brew and a chat. For certain members, this would be one of the few times they leave the house that week.
Our second stop was Emmeline’s Pantry, a location that until recently was a women-only service, though a change of location meant it had now opened its doors on certain days to men too.
The reasoning behind the women-only aspect offered a stark reality of the horrors many women have to endure. Many of the those who rely on the pantry are victims of gender-based violence, with stories that could turn the sternest of stomachs.
Sitting down with the volunteers who keep the place running, I’m told of how one women who had been in the day before, who had been kept shackled up for years.
“It’s a stepping stone. For some women who have gone through gender-based violence even going to ASDA can be traumatic. For a woman that’s going through this, which 80% of our women have, it’s little steps. Let them come somewhere where they know they’re not going to be faced by men, so they can relax.
“If they’ve left a violent relationship, or [have been] trafficked, so they’ve got over that, this might be the first time they’ve left the house. It’s just providing a safe environment, where they can come, they can have a chat, they can feel comfortable and start building up their self-esteem.”
Like the Salford pantry, I’m reminded again of how these volunteers are doing so much more than giving out food and sending people on their way.
Coming away from the day it’s hard not to feel deflated. It’s never been more clear to me that as a society, we’ve failed, in every sense of the word. The work that organisations like Fareshare do is outstanding – but the necessity of them is nothing short of heartbreaking.
I’ve seen select numbers of people suggesting that food charities and pantries aren’t needed and that the situation has been exaggerated. After spending just one day witnessing the operation it becomes quickly clear that couldn’t be further from the truth – and if you for whatever reason don’t believe that, despite the endless list of harrowing statistics, I urge you to spend one day volunteering at one of these centres.
If not that, then FareShare has launched a pack lunch appeal. The idea is simple, take your packed lunch to the office with you and the money you save in doing so, you donate to the charity. Just £10 a month means 480 meals to vulnerable people across Greater Manchester.
Families struggling to feed their kids shouldn’t be an issue in a developed country the size of the UK. In Autumn last year more than 4,500 people were recorded to be sleeping on the streets, a figure that has doubled since 2010.
No two stories are the same and the circumstances that have led to people needing these services on the whole could happen to anyone and much of the time are out of their control.
If you’d like to help out, you can make a donation. Text ‘MEAL’ to 70460 to donate £3. This costs £3 plus a standard rate message.
Alternatively, you can opt to give any whole amount up to £20.