FORTY FOUR food parcels will be dished out to hard-up individuals and families in Shetland on Christmas Eve to ensure they don’t go hungry during the festive season.
The cost of living crisis has bitten as sharply as the gales that batter these isles each winter – resulting in 259 food parcels being distributed so far this year, an alarming increase of 60 per cent on the preceding 12 months.
The Salvation Army’s Lerwick corps officer Angela Nunn said that, despite a thriving economy thanks to a second oil boom and very low unemployment, the number of parcels handed out had mushroomed from 161 last year.
More parcels, made possible with the assistance of churches, community groups and local supermarkets, were dished out in November alone (26) than in the entire period from August to December in 2011.
Nunn blames a mixture of factors including changes and cuts to the welfare system, steep rises in the price of food and fuel, low paying employers and seasonal work leaving people in short term hardship.
“People come to me and they have maybe a couple of yoghurts in the fridge, 20p in their pocket and haven’t eaten for two or three days,” she told Shetland News.
“It’s a real blow to their independence and dignity to come and say they need a food parcel. I handed out food today to people that shared their last bowl of cereal yesterday morning. That’s absolutely terrible.
“The welfare state is supposed to be a safety net [but] we’re having to stand here and catch people falling through the holes in it.”
Nunn said it was vital to raise the issue’s profile because so many seem in denial that others in such an affluent community should be virtually living in penury.
“If I could have a pound for everyone who’s said there’s no poverty in Shetland,” she said, “Some of the wages paid locally are dreadful.
“People who are on the lower end of the income scale are finding it increasingly difficult to manage. Food, electricity, petrol keep going up and up.”
The issue of food banks came under the spotlight at the House of Commons this week, with some Tory MPs facing criticism for laughing and jeering their way through an opposition debate on the subject.
Nunn is convinced that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s welfare cuts have exacerbated the situation, and feels the necessity of food banks suggests the state is failing the vulnerable.
“We’re seeing a lot more, and longer, delays in people getting benefits,” she said. “The benefits system has to be more client-orientated.
“It’s like a game of snakes and ladders – if you do anything wrong in your claim you’re back to square one. It increases the despair and panic. It’s not really a productive way of dealing with these situations.”
Though some clients will have claimed several of the 250+ parcels this year, given they are often used to feed families, Nunn estimates that around 250 islanders will have relied to some extent on charity aid to keep their bellies full in 2013.
She fears the problem is “only going to get worse”. While the UK government eventually coughed up funding to mitigate the bedroom tax’s impact on those affected this year, Nunn said “not everybody has gone to sort that out and get the extra money for it”.
It is rarely pensioners seeking help from the food bank: Nunn works chiefly with people of working age, from 16 upwards. Some are on benefits; others’ pay packets simply don’t stretch far enough to provide even a basic standard of living.
Often youngsters will have left their accommodation and “walk out of the house just in the clothes they’re standing up in if they’ve been kicked out of the house”.
She pointed to short term woes caused by, say, fish factories or construction firms laying off seasonal staff. Too many local employers pay low wages, too – her own son, 19, was recently offered a traineeship at only £5 an hour.
Nunn also points out that, while free bus fares and other perks go to pensioners regardless of income, no such discounts are available for people of working age even if they have no money.
One suggestion she has is a means-tested discount for poor people who wish to Shetland Recreational Trust’s network of leisure centres.
“A lot of councils have schemes for people on benefits,” she said. “It’s the whole thing about inclusion – somewhere warm, get a hot shower, and lots of really good things about being able to go and do sport.”
Meanwhile, as many families look forward to opening parcels stuffed with games consoles, tablet computers, glossy cookbooks and such like on Wednesday, for 44 clients and their families the only parcel that really counts is the one filled with essential foodstuffs to ensure they don’t starve over Christmas and New Year.
• You can donate to the Salvation Army’s 2013 Christmas appeal by clicking here.
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