Foodbank use in Morecambe has more than tripled over five years, new figures show.
Low income is now the number one reason for people using Morecambe Bay Foodbank, as up to 80 volunteers and three paid staff work throughout the week to make sure people don’t go hungry.
In 2013, 2,131 used the service. In 2018, this number had risen to 7,049.
Figures also show that the need is greatest in the Heysham North and Poulton Harbour areas of Morecambe.
The foodbank, in Westminster Road, now employs a warehouse manager to supervise the day to day running of the operation.
The first floor of West End Community Centre now houses a large store room, a dating room, picking room, a smaller store room and administration office, while the ground floor provides space for people to collect food parcels on Tuesdays and Fridays each week.
A team of volunteers works around eight hours a week dating donated items to ensure the food won’t go off.
In the picking room, boxes are made up for different needs.
There’s a “kettle box”, for people who only have a kettle or microwave to heat food, a “cold box” for those with no means of cooking, and a “domestic violence box” for those who have had to leave home in a hurry.
Annette Smith, foodbank manager, says the operation is now at a point where she has to have systems in place.
“Our strategic aim was to close,” she said.
“But the problem is, regardless of what happens at this election, we’re not going to close any time soon.”
The need is increasing all the time, and Annette says the levels of poverty the foodbank is seeing is compounding issues like mental health.
“People find it very difficult to climb out of poverty, and the longer they’re in it, the more their health deteriorates,” she said.
“Our vouchers show the reasons for the crisis. It used to be benefit delays, but now it’s low income.
“The cost of living is continuing to outstrip wages and benefits.
“The average food bank user has £50 a week after rent - that’s bills, heating, food, transport, everything.
“The sad thing is that if you applied for Universal Credit today, you wouldn’t get your first payment until early January.”
This, she said, means people are scared of moving on to Universal Credit from their existing benefits, meaning they’re not claiming what they’re entitled to.
“People are so worried about it being messed up.
“There’s so little breathing space.
“I met a mum the other day who said she can afford food and electricity for three weeks in every month.
“For the fourth month, she has to choose between the two.
“These are employed people. They could be seasonal workers, so they’re busy in summer, casual workers, but they’re at the mercy of the employer.
“It’s not a good thing to work and still not be able to afford food - something’s not right there.
“If everyone is moved to Universal Credit next year, which is what is being proposed, our numbers will soar.”
Currently, the foodbank is preparing for Christmas, and the cold months of December and January.
“Whatever we can’t use this month will be vital for January and February, so hopefully it will see us through,” Annette said.
“We took in 12 tonnes of food last December, but we needed that because it was really busy in January too, and people don’t tend to donate as much after Christmas.”
Downstairs, tables and a screen are being prepared to welcome people with foodbank vouchers.
The vouchers are issued by around 130 different “referring agencies” - who could be social workers, Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) staff, school secrataries or doctors’ receptionists.
“People who can spot the need,” Annette said.
“When we open, we have a team of runners who will come up and down the stairs with what people need.
“We can have up to 50 people at once, so it goes without saying that we could always do with more volunteers.”
In one room, nappies of varying sizes are stacked high to the ceiling.
There are boxes of toothpaste donated by local dentists, shampoo, sanitary items, soap and shower gel.
Annette says the demographic of people using the foodbank varies hugely.
Sofa surfers - people who aren’t homeless but have no fixed abode, young people who have just come out of care, single mothers, people turned down for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) allowance, working people on low or casual wages.
The list goes on.
“Some people save up for a week for a taxi because they’re physically unwell and can’t get here, and home again with their box, on the bus.
“Stagecoach offers free bus travel for anyone with a foodbank voucher, but the family boxes are often too heavy to carry home.
“We have a supply of pet food because people will often feed their animals before themselves.
“We’re given a lot of newborn nappies, but what we really need are size six, for toddlers.”
Annette says the foodbank “cannot be there to perpetuate the crisis”, but there are “constant emergencies”.
“We know there are people really struggling to keep their heads above the water,” she said
“If someone’s getting by but they keep coming back, we can sign post to other organisations.
In the summer holidays - that’s a six week crisis. We’ve often issued six vouchers during that period because we know they’re going to need it.
“We don’t want reliance, but if people are hungry, they need food. It’s about being humane, generous and kind.
“We have a system and a process.
“We do turn people away if they’re not sorting themselves out, but what we’re finding is we do have a choice and a balance to strike.
“People are trying their hardest to make it work. And when children are involved, things are obviously different.
“What we want is for the government to end the five week wait for Universal Credit, remove the benefits cap, and make Universal Credit work in a way that anyone on it can afford food, heat, light and shoes.
“I don’t think that’s asking a lot, because currently, people are being left destitute.”
As the foodbank prepares to open for its first clients of the day, milk is stacked in the kitchen, fresh food close to its use by date is displayed, and flowers are put out on tables.
Annette says she is expecting another record number of people coming through the door.
“It was bad last year, so this year we’re expecting it to be slightly worse,” she said.
“People weep and are so upset to be here.
“People walk up and down the street outside not wanting to come in and when they do, they can’t believe they’re at a food bank.
“All it takes is an accident, ill health, or just bad luck.”
Morecambe Bay Foodbank has launched its reverse advent calender, with people invited to put aside one item a day to make up Christmas boxes.
It has also set up a regular donation page via JustGiving so that it can continue employing staff, and run vehicles, necessary to ensure the operation runs as smoothly as possible.
Morecambe Bay Foodbank is open from 1pm until 3pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.
It also runs the Uniform Project in Morecambe town centre, where parents can pick up second hand school uniforms.
For more information, visit www.morecambebay.foodbank.org.uk.