“AMAZING, appalling, shocking.”
That was the verdict of Durham Foodbank co-ordinator Peter MacLellan on new figures, released today, revealing a 463 per cent rise in North-East foodbank users in just 12 months.
On his County Durham patch, 18,592 adults and children received three days’ emergency food relief from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2013-14 – part of 59,146 across the North-East.
Durham Foodbank has been forced to open another 12 local distribution points in the last year – taking its total to 22 across the county.
Its volunteers now give out nearly nine tons of food every month, feeding more than double in the past 12 months as during the previous year.
And Mr MacLellan is adamant this is a real increase in need, rather than – as critics suggest – people becoming dependent, or even workshy.
“We work very hard not to create dependency,” he says.
“On average, people come to us 1.7 times.
“We monitor how vouchers are distributed, we speak to referrers and we have a three vouchers rule.
“But there are genuine and good reasons for someone to carry on needing food.”
He points to so-called sanctioning, the much-criticised withdrawal of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) including for missing appointments, not applying for enough jobs and not doing enough to look for work.
If a person’s JSA is stopped, they may have to claim a hardship payment, which could see their weekly income fall from £70 to £40.
“That’s just not survivable for a lot of people,” Mr MacLellan says.
Earlier this week, the Anglican Bishop of Jarrow, Mark Bryant, and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, made a joint visit to Gateshead Foodbank, which has 160 volunteers and where a third of people ask for help due to benefit delays.
“These are not people who are trying to work the system,” Bishop Bryant says.
“These are people who are entitled to benefits and the system hasn’t delivered on time.
“You go on visits like this and hear the stories and come away saying: ‘Something isn’t right’.
“We have seriously got something wrong when people who, for a whole variety of reasons, are very vulnerable simply cannot afford either to feed themselves or feed their families.
“When you look at that you just have to say: ‘This cannot be right, something is wrong’.”
Durham Foodbank is entirely dependent on donations. No-one has yet been turned away hungry. For more information, visit durhamfoodbank.org.uk or call 0191-303-7559.