The number of emergency food parcels given out by food banks in Southwark has increased by a third in a year as the switch to Universal Credit continues to bite.
New figures published by the Trussell Trust show the number of three-day food supplies given out between April 2018 and March 2019 leapt by 34 per cent in twelve months, to 5,649. This included just under 2,000 parcels for children.
Peckham-based food bank Pecan’s chief executive says around eighty per cent of people using the service for the first time are in their dire situation due to Universal Credit.
Southwark was one of the first local authority boroughs to trial Universal Credit three years ago.
Since then, the council’s data shows that people who moved onto the system in 2016 saw their rent arrears increase by, on average, £586.
The Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie said: “What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right.
“Enough is enough. We know this situation can be fixed – that’s why we’re campaigning to create a future where no one needs a food bank.
“Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics.”
Her comments were echoed by councillor Evelyn Akoto, Southwark’s cabinet member for community safety and public health, who said the local authority was in the process of developing new plans to deal with the growing problem of food poverty.
“It is disgraceful that, under this Conservative government, the number of people who are forced to turn to food banks for emergency support continues to rise,” she told the News.
“The roll out of Universal Credit has only made this problem worse, with delays in payments pushing people into hardship.
“Unlike the government, we take this issue extremely seriously.
“We are currently developing a food security strategy to support those in food poverty, and we will continue to lobby the government to reform Universal Credit so that nobody is reliant on food banks while they wait for their first payment.”
The Department for Work and Pensions, however, has disputed the link between rising food bank use and the benefits changes.
“It is not true to say that people need to wait five weeks for their first payment. Universal Credit is available to claimants on day one,” a spokesperson said.
“It also cannot be claimed that Universal Credit is driving the overall use of food banks or that benefit changes and delays are driving growth.
“The trust’s own analysis shows a substantial fall in the share of parcels being issued due to benefit payment delays.
“The best route out of poverty is to help people into sustainable employment which, with record employment, we are doing.
“For those who need a safety net we have invested £10 billion into Universal Credit since 2016 alone, confirmed the benefits freeze will end next year and made changes to make Universal Credit fairer for women and families.”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Pecan will launch its latest initiative to tackle the growing crisis; Peckham Pantry.
For a weekly fee of £4.50, members are able to choose between fifteen to twenty pounds worth of food and household goods including fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.