Tens of thousands of UK benefits claimants will be referred to food banks by the Government, which is worried that many Britons face a stark choice: starvation or feeding themselves by begging or stealing.
From today, jobcentres in England and Wales will refer the needy to charity-run food banks that will give them a food parcel. It is the first time in living memory that hungry people will have been passed on to charities in this way.
The move comes amid growing levels of food poverty, fuelled by rising food prices and high rates of unemployment. Under the scheme, people whose benefits have been delayed, or have been refused crisis loans, will be referred to their local food bank. A claimant will be limited to three consecutive referrals – each time giving them enough food for three days. They will be given basics such as tinned soup, baked beans, meat, fish and pasta.
The scheme will operate from more than 70 food banks run by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity. It will open another 60 in the next six months, according to Jeremy Ravn, a director. "We are forecasting that we will feed somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 this financial year," he said. "And we'd expect 30-40 per cent of those to be [caused by] problems over benefits."
Demand for emergency food has soared in many parts of the country. Coventry food bank fed almost 800 people in July – up from 171 in April. In Bournemouth, the figure rose from 168 in April to 348 in August. And in Norwich, the numbers given food jumped from 122 in April to 335 last month.
The total given emergency food boxes will rise from 61,000 in 2010 to an estimated 100,000 this year, according to the trust, which predicts that half a million Britons will need help by 2015. The latest available figures reveal that, in 2008-09 in England and Wales, almost 2.4 million people applied for crisis loans. Only 1.7 million received an initial award, meaning almost 700,000 were left waiting for a loan or had their applications turned down.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said yesterday that the scheme would "signpost" claimants for help. "Jobcentre Plus helps thousands of people every day. As part of that work, we will be happy to signpost those people who need it to the Trussell Trust or other organisations that provide additional help."
Rebecca Waller, 21, from Salisbury, took part in a pilot when she was unemployed earlier this year. "I applied for a crisis loan, which was turned down. I found myself absolutely broke. It was embarrassing having to use the food bank but the people there made me feel really comfortable. Although I only used the scheme once, I'm not sure how I would have coped without it."
Oxfam research shows that up to 6 per cent of Britons report they have enough to eat only "sometimes".
Helen Longworth, Oxfam's head of UK poverty policy, said: "It's shocking that more and more people in the UK are being forced to go to food banks to be able to eat ... In this day and age, nobody should be forced to choose between paying a bill or feeding their family."