January is always one of the busiest months for food banks, Tom says.
In the first few weeks that follow Christmas, finances are typically tight, he explains.
But this January was the busiest ever at Wythenshawe Foodbank with more food parcels provided in one month alone than there were in the first two months last year. Manager Tom Allan is worried that things will only get worse.
“If people can’t afford to make ends meet now,” the 28-year-old asks apprehensively, “what are they going to do when energy bills go up again in April?”
The food bank, which was set up in 2016, fed 427 people last month. Tom says he is seeing more working people and single parents who have never had to use a food bank before now finding themselves with no alternative.
People whose wages are topped up by benefits are trying to balance working extra hours with the cost of childcare, according to Tom. In many cases, they find that taking more shifts at work means they will be worse off, he explains.
People struggling with debt are increasingly using the food bank too, he adds. Last year, debt was the main reason for just 2 pc of referrals – now it is behind 10 pc.
Anyone can use the food bank which moves around the town to different locations each day, but they require a referral for a food parcel voucher. Tom says most of the referrals in Wythenshawe come from housing associations whose tenants cannot afford to feed their families once their rent is paid.
But vouchers can also be issued by schools, the council or even healthcare professionals. Tom is keen to work with as many organisations as possible.
“We started to get phone calls from doctors saying their patients are hungry,” he says. “So we’re getting doctors and midwives on board now too.”
But along with the increased demand, there has been a drop in donations. In fact, the foodbank saw donations halve in 2022 compared to the year before.
The food bank – which is part of the Trussell Trust network – has already spent more money buying food this year than it did in the whole of last year. Tom worries where donations will come from as more people struggle to feed themselves and corporate donors tighten the purse strings post-pandemic.
The biggest drop has been from companies who donated 35,242kg of food in 2021, accounting for 41 pc of donations, but only contributed 5,724kg last year. Individuals now account for nearly half of the food donated – but even these donations dropped by more than 10 pc last year compared to in 2021.
Tony Petrou, who is one of the trustees of Wythenshawe Foodbank, explained that as more people are affected by the cost of living crisis, fewer can afford to donate. Despite this, generosity within the community has not disappeared.
Just before Christmas, he recalls two ladies donating a trolley-load of food worth £53 during a collection at the Asda supermarket in the town centre. People who cannot afford to donate as much still help out however they can.
“We’ve had people who just donate a Freddo because they just want to help,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about this community – people want to just help each other.”
Tom, who grew up in Gorton, has worked at Wythenshawe Foodbank for nearly two years. He will soon be moving to the town he is now so passionate about.
The food bank manager says Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed hungry children inspired generosity in the town where the Manchester United star grew up. But he says ‘compassion fatigue’ has set in since the pandemic.
With the energy price cap set to increase in April, Tom is ‘praying’ for a warm summer. “If it’s raining, then I hate to think what it’s going to be like,” he adds.
Energy costs have also affected how the food bank operates. With diesel prices shooting up, Tom says the van must now be used more sparingly.
However, the ‘manic’ month of January has only motivated staff and volunteers to help more people access the food bank. Tom sees the service they provide as a ‘stepping stone’ for those facing a period of crisis.
“When things go wrong, people phone us up in tears saying they don’t know what to do,” he says. “Especially people who’ve never used a food bank before.
“We pick up the pieces when things fall apart.”
For more information about Wythenshawe Foodbank, visit the website at wythenshawe.foodbank.org.uk, email [email protected] or call Tom on 07518198645.
People can be referred to foodbanks through Manchester council by calling the cost of living advice line on 0800 023 2692 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 4:30pm. Manchester residents can also get help through the council’s Helping Hands webpage by visiting www.manchester.gov.uk/helpinghands.
Council leader Bev Craig said: “We know the cost-of-living crisis is pushing people across Manchester into incredible hardship. As a council it is our utmost priority to extend as much support as possible to families who are struggling through this period.
“Through our dedicated cost of living support line we have already helped hundreds of people, whether that is providing access to foodbanks or putting them in contact with services which provide financial support. We will also continue using our voice to lobby central government to increase and expand welfare provision during these unprecedented economic times.”