East Bristol Food Bank manager Andy Irwin tells Copyright about the growing network of food banks in and around Bristol, why they’re there and how the problem could be getting worse.

We’ve been running food banks in East Bristol for four years but there are a number of others operating in other parts of Bristol too.

Some are supported by the Trussel Trust, like us, but there are independent food banks as well. Alongside FareShare, we are part of a group that have formed a charity to try and deal with the issue of food poverty on a bigger scale called the 5K Partnership. We are particularly looking for cheap or free Warehousing in Bristol to store collective food and open the possibility of bulk donations from businesses.

The thing to take from this is that we’re not here because there isn’t a need. We’ve estimated that just the East Bristol food bank will feed 5,000 people this year. At the beginning of 2015 we were giving out more than two-tonnes of food a month.

Around 40-50 voucher holders come to us every week. I know some people have different ideas about the need for food banks, but our experience is that the people that come to us genuinely need the help.

We don’t get many people through our doors that make me think ‘What are you doing here?’

The sort of people that get referred to us are very wide-ranging. Every week we’ll have someone that’s fleeing domestic violence. Every week we’ll have a family that’s been referred by a health visitor or school. We have a lot of people coming in here that are struggling with getting benefits and getting access to them in time.

You have to wait for a period before benefits are available, between the claiming and receiving of benefits, and we see a lot of people in this situation. On a hands on day to day level we’re seeing people who are saying they don’t have the food they need to feed themselves and their children. That’s a reality in their lives.

I’ve read comments on newspaper blogs where people have suggested the need for food banks is nonsense, our response is always ‘Come down and have a look for yourselves. Make a judgment based on that.’

We certainly give out more food than we used to but it’s difficult to say if we’ve seen a rise in the people that need it as we’ve widened our reach. One of our team members has looked at our database and discovered that there are very few people who come more than once, something like 70 per cent of people only make one visit.

The idea that multiple people are coming again and again, certainly when looking at the statistics from 2014-15, isn’t quite right. It’s about a lot of people hitting a crisis, getting help and moving on.

I struggle to see the logic in making people wait for benefits. How can you make the presumption that people are just going to have the money as a resource when they’re applying for benefits?

I even met a man who had been running a successful business for a number of years and even he didn’t have any food one week when that business folded. He had two properties, one of them I think was a buy-to-let and the other his own. Both had mortgages and he just didn’t have the cash flow. He was quite annoyed that nobody from the statutory organisations would help him after contributing to the system for so many years.

So you have some people at that end of the scale and other’s on zero hour contracts who’ve just been laid off and have a wait of two to three week before they’ll receive any money. We’re concerned that this problem is just going to get worse with the introduction of Universal Credit because that will mean an even longer waiting period for people, anything up to six weeks? What are people going to do in that six weeks? Also currently the plan is to not pay any housing costs covering rent for the first week – an amount of money some people won’t have.

Now we, along with other agencies will have to manage this. Should we have to? Food banks don’t want to be needed, we’re not here because we want to be, we’re here because we’re needed.