Hunger is on the rise, and the number of people turning to food banks continues to climb. In the year to March UK food banks gave out 37% more food parcels than in the previous twelve-month period. It is a similarly bleak picture here in Cambridge where we are beating record numbers of requests for emergency food parcels. Statistics that no one wants to celebrate.
Those figures are shocking, but I have more bad news. The situation locally and nationally is becoming more desperate every day and the number of people coming through our doors to get urgent support just keeps rising.
Hunger in our City
We know that inability to access and choose your own food can jeopardise your health. When Universal Credit payments are so low that people are unable to afford a healthy balance of foods and have to rely on the same cheaper processed foods consistently, they are more likely to experience health conditions that lower their life expectancy and quality of life. In Cambridge, there is a gap of 11.6 years in life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas. Poverty and its consequences, like poor health, come as a grave cost to the individual but also to wider society, where it’s costs are felt by public services like the NHS. And it’s important to stress that this problem is not the result of people simply choosing unhealthy foods over alternatives. Many people in our city simply cannot afford the essentials they need, and therefore they often don’t have an alternative.
This is why the donations we receive from people across Cambridge are absolutely vital in our response to poverty. Without them, thousands more people across our city would not only go hungry but be more likely to suffer from health issues too. However, it should not solely be up to you to provide that lifeline, and it’s not sustainable in the long run. We cannot, and must not, continue like this – we need systemic change.
People Cannot Afford the Essentials
Earlier this year, the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report called ‘Guarantee our Essentials’, which revealed that 90% of low-income households on Universal Credit are currently going without essentials like food or heating. This is because of inadequate social security payments, which are not linked to any measure of the cost of living and have been eroded over decades. The basic rate of Universal Credit is now at its lowest-ever level.
People used to turn to food banks in times of unforeseen hardship; perhaps they lost their job or fell ill and needed some temporary support. But now we are seeing more individuals, including those who receive Universal Credit, who cannot afford basic essentials, such as food, household bills and travel costs. This is because the social security level is not enough. Universal Credit may have risen in line with inflation earlier this year, but the previous rate was already well below the cost of living and the new figure is completely dwarfed by food prices, which rose by 19.1% in the 12 months to March 2023. As it stands, Universal Credit is so low that people who need support are unable to afford the essentials and are becoming trapped in poverty. That’s part of why we’re seeing more and more people in our city who are in need of emergency food parcels.
A Permanent Solution
We need to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of a society do we want to live in?’ Surely, we want to live in a country where everyone is able to feed themselves, live in a safe place and wash their clothes? Where every one of us should be supported to afford the essentials until we can get on our feet, and where the work of strong and vibrant community groups does not have to involve providing emergency food.
It’s clear that we need a permanent solution; we need our government to guarantee the essentials.
Cambridge City Foodbank is joining the Trussell Trust and Joseph Roundtree Foundation in calling for the UK government to guarantee the essentials. This means the establishment of an independent, non-partisan body to determine the minimum level of support needed for people to afford the essentials and a guarantee from the government that social security payments will not fall below that minimum.
Join our Call
We are calling upon our representatives to support this call, joining the 72% of people in the UK who support the Essentials Guarantee. Together we can send a clear message to the government that social security payments must at least be enough to afford the essentials we all need to get by.
Please email your MP and tell them to support the Essentials Guarantee. Find out how on the Trussell Trust website. And if you want to provide immediate help to people in our city, please donate food at your local supermarket. We need your support now more than ever.
Steve Clay, CEO, Cambridge City Foodbank