politics

Inside foodbank helping families who don't even have blankets for beds


It’s rare to get a call from someone who desperately needs food for themselves or their children.

The call usually comes from a neighbour or a friend – someone who has spotted that a family needs help but is reluctant to admit how bad things have become.

“The poor have got poorer,” says Naz Kazmi, chief executive of charity Keighley Association for Women and Children Centre.

“There’s a wait for Universal Credit and they still have rent or a mortgage and energy bills to pay.”

Keighley, part of the Bradford Metropolitan District, is a former mill town with a strong manufacturing sector that has been squeezed hard by Covid-19 lockdowns.

Throughout the pandemic Naz has given out tinned goods, rice, pasta, and twice a week she provides meals for people to heat up at home.



Chair of the centre and volunteer Claire Young

She adds: “We have a lot of families where the main income is from taxi drivers, who are earning much less due to the early closure of night-time economy.

“We supported a baker on reduced hours, and we gave food to an Eastern European family with two kids. The husband had lost his building job and they needed a leg up for six weeks while their Universal Credit came through.

“Another time a young woman came in who had moved up from the South with two children who hadn’t had fruit for weeks. She was clearly a drug user. But we don’t judge anyone who’s walking in. You can’t just let them go.

“Not only have these people lost their livelihoods, there’s a decline in mental health. Families are torn to bits due to financial circumstances.



Volunteer Rana stacks the shelves and prepares the food parcels

Families cannot afford to support their children – and not just with food. We are providing clothes, shoes, bedding, household items and toys for the children. It’s awful.”

Others in need of help are victims of domestic abuse – but even when they ask for help, Covid means it’s not as simple to provide it.

Naz says: “Before Covid, women were able to come out of their homes and see us and we were more aware of what was happening.



Stuart Bennett receives his food parcels at the front door of the centre due to Covid restrictions

“Now if they do come for support, we have to do what we can. Women are calling us from their back bedrooms, saying ‘Can you put the food behind the bins, or in the garage while he’s out?’ They feed the children and themselves when the man isn’t around.

“We have a mum of two who has fled domestic violence, from one place to another, so her husband couldn’t find her. She’s in a secret location and we’re supporting her.

“I’ve left food for another woman and her children in an outside bin too. Her husband has gambling problems and keeps all the wages, leaving his family with nothing to live on.”

Domestic abuse is a recurring problem, and, as a Labour councillor, I’ve seen people affected in the affluent parts of my ward too.

A mum was fleeing an abusive relationship and had nothing – a church stepped in with home-cooked meals while she waited for her food bank parcel and to move away.



Josh Selfe, Corps officer at the Salvation Army in Keighley

Another time I got a call about a destitute asylum seeker who had fled domestic abuse with her two young children. She was so scared she wouldn’t answer the door the first time someone knocked on it to deliver hot food and warm words.

Before March, 30 people a week used the town’s Salvation Army food bank in Keighley. At the height of Covid the figure was 3,600.

Salvation Army corps officer Josh Selfe had been in the town for only eight months when he was asked by the council to help lead a huge distribution network to feed shielded people and families in need.

He is now at the centre of a system that ensures community food banks across the town are stocked.



Claire Young leaves the food parcels at the front door due to Covid-19 restrictions

Josh says: “School holidays have always been a challenge, however this has been heightened during the pandemic as some families would rely on the extended family or friendship networks to help with childcare or meals, and there would be holiday clubs.

“There’s also concern about self-isolating. I know of one family who had to wait four days for Covid test results to come back, and they didn’t get paid for these four days.

“There’s stress of having to provide childcare at the same time as having to work to make ends meet and making the budget work.”

The food bank network the Salvation Army supports across the area includes Hainworth Wood Community Centre, in my ward of Keighley East.



Cllr Caroline Firth speaks to local resident Stuart Bennett after he receives his food parcels

The centre is at the heart of a mainly white working-class estate and lead volunteer Claire Young has recently been getting around four referrals a week from Josh.

She says: “This week we’re up to 15-20 people, mainly in-work people, needing food support.

“The parents are on reduced hours or they’ve been laid off as workplaces have shut. Other people are self-employed and have seen their work dry up.”



Salvation Army corps officer Josh Selfe sorts food parcels

The food parcels Claire and her fellow volunteers give out include items to cook at home, including pasta and sauce, rice, tinned vegetables, tinned fruit and other dried goods.

She adds: “People don’t want to use a food bank, it’s embarrassing for them. They’re not all coming through the official Salvation Army number – I’m finding some people on the estate.

“They’re meant to come to the centre to pick up the food but they won’t as everyone knows why they’re coming. So, I go drop the food off at their houses.”

Claire says one food bank user, Helen, has four children. Her husband worked full time but had his hours cut.

They aren’t entitled to housing benefit and have always struggled financially, but until now could always feed their children.



The food bank is based at Hainworth Wood Community Centre

“Now they’re going under and she’s too proud to ask for anything,” Claire says. “I heard about Helen from another parent, who told me they were taking food to her. I’m taking parcels up myself and leaving them on the doorstep so they can’t turn it down.”

As we’re chatting, father-of-two Stuart, 43, comes to pick up a parcel. He is currently out of work after being laid off by a lighting firm and is struggling to get his benefits – he says the GP and job centre have been difficult to access due to Covid.

He praises the centre as being the “heart of the community” and adds: “When you’re at the bottom of things and you’re struggling, things are harder and the system is designed to make you struggle. The whole system is flawed

It’s not just coronavirus that’s a crisis, it’s the whole system.”



Essentials are laid out ready for sorting for people in need

Another volunteer at the community centre, Mary, is on furlough from one job and had her hours reduced at another.

Claire insists she also takes a food parcel. Mary says: “There’s a variety of all different reasons why people need help, and this is the hub where people know they can get help – whether it’s food, or support in other ways.

“There are families on low incomes and single-parent families. At school their children are getting milk, a hot meal and fruit but some children don’t get a hot meal unless they’re at school.

“A lot of parents are struggling more than normal. They’re trying to keep their heads above water with their bills, without any extras like shoes, birthdays, school holidays and Christmas.

Some people’s wages don’t cover their utility bills, never mind the rent. It’s the same for people on benefits.



Cllr Caroline Firth speaks to Claire Young, chair of the centre

“The Government is telling people to get a job, so they work. But to try to get that wage to cover full rent and full taxes and everything else is tough

The cost of living has gone up but wages haven’t, and everything is getting more expensive because of Covid.”

The network’s food, or money to pay for it, comes from supermarkets, businesses, Bradford District Council and kind individuals.

Local business are struggling, but that hasn’t stopped them taking action to support vulnerable people alongside faith groups, community organisations, charities and the council – whose leader Susan Hinchcliffe ensured children got free lunches during October half term.



Councillor Caroline Firth visits the centre

But for all the need being met, child poverty will not be fixed by volunteers and councils applying a sticking plaster.

For a start the council’s plasters will run out, as the Tories have systematically dismantled the authority’s funding in the past decade. Other public bodies are no better off.

The Government must start to rebuild what it ripped down, and support working people so they have enough to live on.

The Tories have particularly failed to back self-employed people during this crisis, and they abandoned our children to hunger until footballer Marcus Rashford shamed ministers into action.

As Naz says: “We’re not a Third World country where we should struggle for food. This is Britain.”

To donate to Keighley’s food banks visit here.

For more on child poverty go to mirror.co.uk/all-about/give-me-five

* Labour councillor Caroline Firth is donating the fee from this article to food support services in Keighley.





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