Food poverty: myth or reality for poor families in Newcastle Diocese?


by the Revd Allison Harding

Following the two open meetings of Newcastle Diocesan Synod Forum in 2013 on poverty issues, the Poverty Task Group was set up to see how we can respond to the growing number of people in our Diocese who are living in poverty.

In 1945, the first post-war government began the building of the welfare state, which was intended to reward the nation for its victory in the war by building a society in which poor housing, inability to pay for health and dependence on charity in times of old age, sickness and unemployment were all abolished.

Food bank volunteers at work

Food bank volunteers at work       


Fetching and carrying

Fetching and carrying       


Distributing food to clients is a huge job

Distributing food to clients is a huge job       


Almost seventy years later, this vision is unravelling, as food banks have become a major feature of provision for the poorest people in Newcastle and other cities.

The Trussell Trust oversees more than 400 UK food banks, with 614,000 people receiving help from them in the first nine months of 2013-14.

The Government insists that its welfare reform policies are not linked to people seeking food, despite this view being disputed both by research evidence and the day to day experience of people who give up their time to work and volunteer with food banks.

The Portrayal of Poor People

Throughout history, poor people have been presented as irresponsible and feckless; politicians and those who have more than enough to live on have suggested that food bank users spend their money on junk food then rely on the food bank to provide them with the essentials. Leading figures in all political parties have been keen to present themselves as being on the side of ‘hard-working’ people and to condemn those who prefer depending on benefits to working, ignoring much of the evidence as to why people depend on benefits and use food banks.

The Reality of Life on Low Income

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world, but also one of the least equal, with the richest 1 per cent of people in the country owning as much wealth as the poorest 55 per cent. Changing patterns of work have created huge problems for the lowest paid, with an estimated 1.4 million people on zero hours contracts, not knowing what their income will be from week to week.

In fact, 60% of people of working age who claim benefits are in employment – their wages are simply insufficient to meet their living costs without additional income.

For those who are seeking work, there are ever more demanding targets to be met and greater risk of having their benefits reduced or withdrawn – the Policy Exchange estimate that 70,000 job seekers have had their benefits withdrawn unfairly, leaving them dependent on food banks. A study of the impact of various cuts to benefits under the government’s welfare reform programme suggested that more than a third had less than £20 per week to spend on food, after meeting the ever increasing cost of fuel and other day-to-day necessities.

Case Studies of Food Bank Users

The reality is that people we see using food banks every week have heart-wrenching stories of the reality of living in poverty. There are huge numbers of people using food banks who are working, but their pay is too low to cope with the increasing cost of food and utilities. The following are case studies of people who have approached one Newcastle food bank for help:

Case Study 1: Woman fleeing domestic violence

A woman used the food bank to help her feed her children after fleeing from a violent relationship. She had shared a property with her husband, had a job and on the surface she and her two children appeared to be living a good life with little or no financial worries. However, she couldn't stay in the violent relationship: as her husband's violence became worse, this had an effect not only on her but also on her children.

She fled and went into a hostel with her children. She had to leave her job because her husband knew where she worked. She also left her home because she was afraid of the repercussions from her husband and his family; she left everything behind.

Eventually she found a private rented property but the housing benefit didn't cover the rent; she had some debts that were manageable when she was working but now, in receipt of benefits, she couldn't pay them.

This woman felt like she was drowning emotionally and financially. She knew that leaving her violent partner was the right thing to do for her and her children but the welfare state did not support this decision. She felt ashamed that she had to come to the food bank and never seemed comfortable there, despite the welcome she received from the volunteers.

Case study 2: Woman coping with loss

A woman had three children; her partner had died and she ended up having to leave her job. While she was receiving support from the food bank her mother became ill and died leaving three young children of her own, so she took them in which meant that she had six children to care for. She was grieving the loss of her mother and while getting support from social services she still also needed the support of the food bank. She continued to use the food bank for months but this was more then a place to get food - it was a place where she could come twice a week to have a cuppa and someone to listen to her and give her a hug when she needed this.

Eventually she stopped coming but I believe that the food bank got her through an extremely difficult time in her life. I know that she was extremely grateful not only for the food that she received but also for the support. I still see her around and she stops and has a chat.

Case Study 3: Benefit changes

Changes to the benefits system have had a significant impact on people. For example, a single man who had never worked was in receipt of invalidity benefit but was told that he didn't meet the criteria for the new benefit for disabled people so had to make a new claim for Job Seekers' Allowance. It took months for the benefit application to be processed and in the meantime he received nothing, leaving him with no income at all. So he had to use the food bank; we couldn't limit him or others like him to only a few food parcels because we are committed to support people until their benefits are restored. However, once the benefits are restored people are often in debt because they have had to borrow to live, as we know that food is not all that people need to live on.

Case Study 4: Sanctions

Many people who use the food bank have very chaotic lives, which sometimes results in people missing appointments or not being able to apply for the huge number of jobs that are expected by the job centre. When this happens people are sanctioned which basically means that they lose their benefit for any time from six weeks to twelve months. It is becoming increasingly normal for people to be sanctioned.

We are asked time and again if the people using the food bank are in genuine need. This is just a tiny glimpse of some of the people that are using the food bank. There are many more stories like these.


The Bible, the Church and Food Banks

The involvement of churches and individual Christians in food banks demonstrates the commitment that many have to tackling food poverty. At a policy level, clergy of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, have pointed out to the Government the impact of its policies on food poverty.

There is no shortage of passages in the Bible to demonstrate why Christians are concerned:

  • Matthew 25:35-36 says “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me.”
  • The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 warns us of the consequences of ignoring the needs of the poorest people. The rich man is condemned for enjoying his wealth while ignoring the needs of Lazarus, who begged at his gate.

The life of a Christian from God’s perspective is one of service and love. One that looks out for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. So we should not ask ‘Are these people worthy? Do they deserve it? Are they genuine?’ Instead we should remember that Christ tells us in his word that we should feed the hungry - he doesn't say check out their story, establish whether they are local and see whether their circumstances are due to some sin in the past or present.

Food banks do more than just feed people. Part of their role is to look at all possible sources of income that a person can access, help them to find other forms of support and point them towards agencies that are able to support them in the longer term.

Those with Christian origins also offer the chance to pray where people want this. However, the fundamental service provided by food banks remains providing food to people who require it in a crisis and listening and not judging the people who are desperate enough to ask for support.

The Bible says that, when we feed those in the very greatest need, we are feeding Christ.


Please help local people in crisis by buying items from the list below and giving them to your local food bank.

• Milk (UHT or powdered)
• Sugar (500g)
• Fruit juice (long life carton)
• Cereals
• Pasta sauces
• Tinned sponge pudding
• Tinned tomatoes
• Tinned vegetables
• Soup
• Tinned rice pudding
• Tea bags/Instant coffee
• Instant mash potato
• Rice/pasta
• Tinned meat/fish
• Tinned fruit
• Jam
• Biscuits or snack bars


If you or your church would like to make contact with a local food bank, please contact them direct or phone one of our helpful team who will do their best to put you in touch with a local group.

Frances Allsop: 01665 510 095

Steve Forster: 07791 369 625

Allison Harding: 0191 226 0101

David Ratcliff: 01434 608 882

Geoff Miller: 0191 273 8245

Peter Robinson: 01670 503 810






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