Westminster Chapel, an evangelical church in London, sits among the many cafés, bars and upmarket hotels catering to the smartly dressed workers of the area, just a stone’s throw from Britain’s most iconic royal site, Buckingham Palace. It’s here, in the heartland of the U.K.’s political district of Westminster, that the church operates the borough’s only food bank, providing emergency supplies of food for struggling residents.
Miriam Etter, a volunteer who runs the food bank, admits that many locals in the area are shocked to hear that some residents are in need of emergency food handouts. But it’s an evident and growing need for some people across the U.K. Based on unofficial data there are up to 600 food banks in the country, more than half of which are operated and run with the assistance of the charity the Trussell Trust, including the one at Westminster Chapel.
The Trussell Trust says that there has been a 170% rise in the numbers turning to food banks for emergency provision in the last year, and it’s now opening up to three food banks every week (compared to one every week in 2011). Users of these food banks must be referred by doctors, social workers or others in a position of authority, and are typically given three days’ worth of non-perishable food items. A report by the U.K.-based international aid agency Oxfam and campaign group Church Action on Poverty earlier this year indicated that half a million Brits turned to food banks and food parcels to feed themselves and their family in the last year, triple the number that did in the year before. The international aid agency the Red Cross announced in October that it would help with food aid collection in Britain—the first time it has done so since World War II.
This picture of a modern Britain, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with potentially hundreds of thousands in need of food handouts is one that many outside the country find difficult to swallow, says Chris Johnes, director of Oxfam’s U.K. poverty program. He recounts a story of when he was talking to a group of South Korean businessmen about the problem, and the interpreter refused to translate immediately “because his jaw was dropping down to the table.”
The Trussell Trust and other campaigners point to a number of reasons why the demand for food aid has become so acute: In the past six years food prices have risen by 12.6% above inflation, this, together with flat lining or falling wages, the recession, austerity measures introduced by the British government that have in turn impacted welfare benefits and rising energy prices have all contributed to the problem.
Though the Trussell Trust started opening food banks in 2000, predating both the financial crisis and the tightening of the rules for access to welfare introduced in April this year, Johnes describes food poverty as a “product of the more recent recession” and says Oxfam have been trying to have a dialogue with the British government to address the issue. “I think they are very unsure of how to react, because for a long time they’ve been unable to agree this degree of hardship exists, and what’s more that some of this hardship is as a result of their own policies,” says Johnes.
Miriam Etter, says she too has had to readjust her views on poverty as a result of her volunteer work at the Westminster Chapel. “I grew up in Malawi so my idea of what poverty is is people really having nothing,” says Etter, who adds that she has been shocked by some of the stories of those who have used the food bank’s resources. “You think living in the U.K. everyone has access to these things, but not everyone does.”
Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust, is hopeful that government departments will engage with them on the issue. But he rebuts criticism that by continuing to open new food banks, they are providing a safety net that the government should perhaps be doing itself. “This isn’t about bailing out government,” he says, adding that he has been “disappointed” by their “unwillingness to talk with us.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions, which oversees U.K. welfare policy, told TIME that “the Trussell Trust itself says it is opening three new food banks every week, so it’s not surprising more people are using them. They also agree that awareness that helped to explain their recent growth.” They added that food banks were part of a “tradition in this country of voluntary and charity organizations providing support to people in addition to the safety net provided by government.”
However, the growth in their use has spurred another government department, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), to commission research earlier this year into food aid provision in the U.K. Earlier in November the Sunday Times newspaper speculated that the department is now delaying publishing that report because of suspicion that “the findings are embarrassing for the coalition.” A Defra spokesperson denied this, explaining that it was still going through “the necessary review and quality assurance process.”
Although green shoots of recovery have started to appear in the U.K. economy, Johnes says “all signs show we’re heading for a million people using Trussell Trust food banks alone this year.” He warned that as the winter season sets in, some people will be forced to chose between “eating and heating” because of high energy bills. The best we can hope for, says Johnes, “is a mild winter and no shocks to food prices.”