Coventry’s food bank was launched three years ago operations director Gavin Kibble expected to support around 2,000 people a year.
This year his prediction stands somewhere between 17,000 and 18,000.
Taking a brief break during a distribution day at the Hope Centre in Hillfields, he says: “We had no idea when we first started. We quickly realised this wasn’t a simple project.
“But despite demand being far greater than we expected we’ve never run out of food thanks to people’s generosity.
“If this project is about anything it’s about community looking after community.
“It goes back to basic fundamental human principles of people with a little extra giving it to people who don’t quite have enough.”
But just four months ago food bank users were publicly criticised by Education Secretary Michael Gove who suggested families turn to food banks as a result of their own “decisions”.
Gavin says: “You get lots of this stuff from the Government, always in terms of generalisms.
“It’s like changing the tale of the Good Samaritan so that he’s walking along the road, sees a man has been beaten up, and says ‘Look, you should have known better than walking alone late at night in this district, and because you were so stupid I’m going to leave you here’.”
As part of the Christian charity the Trussell Trust, Coventry food bank is supported by churches across the city (unlike most cities, including Birmingham, where several separate food banks are responsible for different areas) and Gavin finds much of the food bank’s philosophy can be summed up in Biblical parables.
There are more than 250 referring agencies, including the Job Centre, Citizen’s Advice Bureau and family centres, signposting people to any of 13 distribution points across the city where they are likely to claim between one and three food parcels, depending on their circumstances. Half the people currently using the service are there because their benefits payments have been stopped.
When the service launched in January 2011 it saw a significant proportion of people needing help because admin problems caused delayed benefits payments.
But now, Gavin says the food bank is seeing “a massive rise” in the number of people suffering from “sanctions” imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) through the Job Centre.
“On income support and job seekers’ allowance (JSA) people get about £71 a week,” he says, “But to get that JSA they need to be able to demonstrate that they’ve applied for a sufficient number of jobs per week and attended interviews as required. If they fail on either of those things, they can be sanctioned and get no payment for up to four weeks.
“The second failure can see someone sanctioned for three months, and the third sanction lasts for a year. If that benefit payment is all you were living on it means all you’ve got has been taken away from you.”
The food bank is now seeing 1,600 people a month – up 40 per cent on last year’s figures.
A University of Warwick study surveyed food bank users in Coventry and found that 43 per cent (mainly women) said they had, at some point, resorted to stealing food for their families.
Changes to benefits payments are expected to leave 9,000 people in Coventry this year needing food parcels just to survive.
Gavin says: “The rules around sanctions are being rigidly applied without listening to the reasons why people haven’t done what was expected. The compassion has gone out of the process.
“On one hand you can simply say ‘There are guidelines and they should be followed’, but that really does de-humanise the process.
“It comes down to a family being reduced to living on Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit or sending me an email saying ‘I can’t put food on the table for my children’.”
But according to Gavin, members of the public are more compassionate than media coverage or political discourse might suggest.
He says: “If you read opinions on the Daily Mail website you’ll get a very lopsided view of how people think. But if you have conversations with the general public, which we do when we’re collecting outside supermarkets, people regularly say ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.
“They know it doesn’t take much – a boiler breaking or an unexpected repair on a car – to make people fall into a place where they struggle to make ends meet.”
This year, Coventry Central Food Bank is expanding its remit by setting up “Jobs Clubs”, giving weekly sessions in CV-writing, jobs research and interview skills.
“It’s an obvious extension of Matthew 25:35,” says Gavin, “‘When I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was naked you clothed me... and when I needed a job you set up a Jobs Club’.
“If we’ve got it right we’ll put the infrastructure in place so that in the future the food bank is no longer needed.”
He adds: “What I love about this project is that it’s brought out the best in people.
“We collect from so many organisations around the city and the generosity is huge.
“This is a city that tends to get knocked a lot but if you scratch beneath its surface you find a brilliant population and I think you’d have to go a long way to find a group of people that are better at looking after their neighbours.”
* The Food bank needs food, financial support and volunteers. If you can help contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 02476 633 500.
I felt ashamed but my cupboards were empty
Becky, 38, from Eastern Green, Coventry, contacted the food bank when she struggled to feed herself, her husband and their three children, all under 16.
“My employment support allowance was suspended and my husband, who has severe arthritis and heart problems, had been taken off incapacity benefit.
“He was supposed to go to a meeting at the Job Centre but prior to that we informed them that we couldn’t attend because our young son was sick and needed to be looked after.
“But when my husband wasn’t there he was sanctioned and his payments were stopped for four weeks.
“That meant for four weeks we had £69-a-week for the whole family to live on.
“It was heartbreaking really.
“We went back to the Job Centre but they said they couldn’t help. There was nowhere to turn and my cupboards were empty.
“I had heard about the food bank so I emailed them asking if I could get a voucher.
“I felt ashamed at first because of my pride. But when I walked in they came out with six bags of food with tomatoes, beans, pasta, rice pudding, cereal, milk, etc.
“I was gobsmacked and quite teary.”
Becky has now started volunteering for the food bank.
She says: “It’s been an eye-opener for me, seeing what comes into the warehouse and seeing how many vouchers are needed.
“The food bank is an amazing service for people. You don’t realise how badly people need support until you’ve been there.”