Food banks shine the best and worst lights on the United Kingdom. Mostly the worst.

When people think of poverty and deprivation, a pretty village surrounded by fields in the middle of Suffolk does not necessarily spring to mind. However, although poverty may not be so immediately obvious in Debenham or its surrounding area, it exists and is growing at an alarming rate. You, like many others, may be surprised to learn that our village of just over 2,000 people has a food bank which has been operating for a number of years now; its usage has never been higher.

This Christmas 100 hampers were donated to families feeding a total of 342 people. This was a wonderful achievement by the Forge Church and its supporters and no doubt made it a special and memorable Christmas for so many families. My family and I were delighted to support the scheme and we will do so again next year as it really does make an immeasurable difference to people.

Despite this, the elation and the small feeling of satisfaction is largely negated by the knowledge that for 364 days of the year life is a constant struggle for these families with Christmas acting only as an all too brief respite.

Locally, the last three years there has been a steady but significant increase in the use of our local food bank. Below are the numbers of parcels that have been distributed since 2011;

2011 – 116

2012 – 167

2013 – 220+

As you can see the food parcel distribution now stands at nearly one for every working day of the year. This may not seem like a huge number but for a village like Debenham it is a significant figure. It is also worrying when it is considered that a food bank in nearby Stowmarket has been operating for a year and it was also reported in October that the food bank in Diss, less than half an hour away, had seen a 390% increase in their usage for the previous six months.

Nationally, the figures are disturbing to say the least. According to the Trussell Trust, when Labour left power in 2010, there were approximately 40,000 people who used their food banks in the UK and the number was gradually increasing; there is no question at all that this was simply not OK. However, nearly 350,000 people were helped by the Trussell Trust’s foodbanks last year, 100,000 people more than was originally estimated.

These numbers underline the fact that the existence and usage of food banks have rapidly become an epidemic and can no longer be ignored. Before Christmas, the brilliant Jack Monroe launched a petition aimed at investigating the causes of food bank use and hunger in the UK and within a matter of days it received around 100,000 signatures. On Opposition Day, a week before Christmas, the motion was debated in the House of Commons. The timing was particularly fitting; it was estimated that 60,000 people would go hungry on Christmas day with a third of them children.

What followed was one of the most spurious ‘debates’ that have been conducted in recent times.  described Esther McVey’s speech as ‘one of the nastiest frontbench speeches I have heard in my 43 years in this House’ and I had little reason to doubt him. Whether it was Iain Duncan Smith’s smiling and slinking, the jeering and laughter for the government benches as Fiona MacTaggart described the battle in her local Tesco’s for end of day bargains or even the suggestion that because Germany has a higher usage of food banks we don’t have a problem comparatively, all made for a quite frankly repulsive spectacle. It is also notable that though the Tories barely managed to encourage two dozen MPs to attend the debate, they managed to rustle up well over 200 to oppose the motion.

‘Out of touch’ is a phrase that has always been used to describe politicians (admittedly of all colours but particularly the blue ones) but it is a phrase being deployed with ever increasing regularity and pertinence; the food bank ‘debate’ underlined and reinforced why. The smattering of MPs on the Tory side looked entirely bereft of  compassion and empathy at times and the Lib Dems are now barely of a ghost of an independent, credible political party; you could count their whole representation at the ‘debate’ on one hand with fingers to spare. If you needed one example of why people are so apathetic towards politics then you need not have looked any further than this debate.

It leaves you wondering whether they are actually so deluded and oblivious to what’s happening that they genuinely think there isn’t a problem. Or, that they know exactly what’s happening, are fully aware of the ramifications of their policies, yet deliberately ignore them and plough on regardless. It’s difficult to decide which option is worse but I suspect it is the latter; it is clear that the ‘divide and rule’ will be the basis of the Conservative’s campaign strategy leading up to 2015.

My own constituency MP, Dr Dan Poulter, has been hideously disappointing recently, or rather, more so than usual. In Debenham’s parish magazine we had a plea from the aforementioned food bank for donations this winter. I hoped that Dr Poulter, in his monthly article, would have at least mentioned food banks given that they had been in the news for a sustained period of time and because their usage was a rapidly increasing problem in his very own constituency. No such luck; but then he didn’t mention another important constituency issue or even a national political issue either. No, what Dr Poulter chose to talk about was the history of Big Ben.

I read his other recent articles in previous publications and they included his views on the Deputy Speaker election and the history of the Prime Minister of this country; hardly pertinent or relevant issues to the constituents of Central Suffolk and North Ipswich.

I don’t know why I was so surprised; Dr Poulter didn’t attend the debate on food banks nor did he bother to vote with his fellow Tory colleagues in rejecting the motion; clearly it’s not an issue that he feels is an important one either locally or nationally. However, he did recently manage to vote in favour of the bedroom tax AND claim nearly £25,000 in accommodation expenses. All in it together?

Food banks shine the best and worst lights on the United Kingdom. At our core we have compassion, empathy and a burning desire for equality and fairness. Ordinary people in our communities have come together to provide extraordinary provision for those most in need; it’s not hyperbole to suggest that much of the work they do is at the very least life-supporting if not life-saving.

At the same time it simply shouldn’t have to exist. People in one of the wealthiest countries in the world shouldn’t have to choose between heating and eating, shouldn’t have to constantly watch each and every outgoing and incoming penny and they certainly shouldn’t have to lean on the generosity of others to provide a Christmas dinner for their family. This is the Britain we now find ourselves in and it is nothing short of shameful.

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