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Fears for future of Lancashire food banks as demand surges and donations fall due to cost of living crisis

Written by on May 19, 2022

The manager of a food bank warned that services could become unsustainable amid the cost of living crisis.

Helen Schilz, manager of LW Storehouse food bank in Chorley, said demands on the service had dramatically increased at a time when donations have also dropped. Helen said more pensioners and large families are using a service which has had to spend thousands of pounds to stock its shelves in the past two months.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics which today showed inflation soaring to a 40-year high as it reached 9% in the year to April. And according to analysis from the Institute for Financial Studies, the rate for the poorest in the country is actually 11% due to the proportion of income spent on food and energy.

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That impact is being seen in food banks across Lancashire where referrals are increasing as more people struggle to afford food and essential bills. Helen said: “The cost of living has had a huge impact on the food bank. It’s not the only thing that’s affecting it but it’s a significant one.

“In April, 50% of those who accessed our food bank hadn’t accessed us before this year. The other thing is our donations are down by 80% which is making it very difficult.”

The reduction was such that the service, which is based at Living Waters Church on Bolton Street, had to spend £3k on food to fill its shelves in April and has already spent another £1k this month to top up donations. Helen says part of this is linked to people who are able to give to charity choosing to donate to victims of the Ukrainian war. “That’s completely understandable,” she said, “we would just ask people to help with local charities as well if they can”.

Helen Schilz runs a food bank based at Living Waters Church in Chorley
(Image: Google Maps)

Helen said that as well as large families – which includes those with three or more children – there has been a clear increase in pensioners using the service. She said: “They still like their heating on a little bit and the cost is making it difficult for them.

“It’s particularly hard for them. I had a gentleman ring up yesterday and he said ‘we’re not eligible for pension credit because I get £6 a week too much to qualify’. There’s more people like that who are struggling.”

With more families using the service now, the summer is expected to present a further challenge with the free schools meals scheme currently not being due to run during the holidays. Helen echoed concerns from the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) that soaring demand puts the future of services at risk. She said: “We’re struggling now and going forward that will have a significant impact.

“I’ve had a few conversations about that recently. We’ve spent £3k last month, there’s only so many months we can do that before the money runs out entirely.”

Lesley Mann, who runs the Olive Branch in Lancaster, warned that more people are only one change away from needing support amid the crisis. He said that the number of households receiving parcels has reduced since its height during the pandemic but remains well above 2019 levels. He also said the average number of people in each household receiving support has increased as more families struggle to pay for food.

Asked about the impact of the rising cost of living, Leslie said the charity had noticed that people are finding themselves less able to absorb financial hits compared to the past. He said recent referrals included a man who had his wallet stolen and was left with no other way to pay the bills and another man who had been underpaid his benefits by £50.

Rising food costs are a big concern for those who find themselves requesting help from the likes of The Olive Branch. Leslie said: “We’re currently hearing that reported from people who are referred to us for food parcels.

“We try to find out the reasons for why they’ve been referred. It can be quite a range for anyone who can’t feed themselves. There’s a lot going on out there.

“We’re hearing from more and more people where the amount going in doesn’t equal the amount going out and that position is what leads to questions of ‘do I feed the children or pay the electric bill?’.

Leslie said the Olive Branch has so far avoided being hit too badly by increased costs and thanked the people of Lancaster for their generosity in providing donations and support. He said the service’s finances are managed very diligently but there remains a lot of uncertainty over how much support it will need to provide in the coming months. A partnership with the council and other services had also helped to co-ordinate support and prevent too much strain being placed on any one provider.

Before the pandemic struck, the Olive Branch was dealing with referrals from around 280 households per month before hitting a peak of 650 during the pandemic. That has now dropped to around 360 households but at the same time the number of people within those households has increased from an average of 1.7 to 2.3, meaning more families with children are needing support.

Leslie said: “I came into this job as manager three and a half years ago. From 2018-19 we jumped up 45% so it’s not just a new thing. We are seeing a lot more families referred who are just struggling with the cost of living.

“The other thing we find is so many of our guests are people who are struggling by month to month but when one kind of change comes where something goes wrong. We had someone in the other day whose wallet had been stolen and that difference was the thing that tipped him over the edge.

“We had another person who had been underpaid his benefits. It was £50 which might not sound a lot but for him it was the difference between being able to eat.”