London, United Kingdom - On a weekday morning in west London, mugs are clinking as volunteers prepare tea and pastries at a local community centre. Only a short walk from the affluent neighbourhood Maida Vale, people are preparing for the weekly drop-in food bank, where those referred by social services can receive bags of non-perishable goods and toiletries.
There are now an estimated 2,000 food banks operating across the UK, some run by charities, others by churches, schools and hospitals.
Years of austerity and an increasingly adversarial welfare state have caused the numbers of individuals and families reliant on food aid to soar. The Trussel Trust, which operates around 400 food banks, said it gave out almost 1.2 million three-day emergency food supplies in the past year, up from only 41,000 in 2010.
Most of those referred are benefit recipients who are suffering from delays or punitive sanctions from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Those sanctioned receive a reduction or suspension of their payments, often leaving them without a sufficient income to feed themselves.
Food insecurity is a hot-button issue in UK politics and has featured heavily in the campaign before Thursday's general election. Members of Parliament from the ruling Conservative Party have been criticised for saying they are "really pleased we have food banks" or suggesting those using them are suffering a "cash-flow problem".
When asked during an interview with state broadcaster, the BBC, why some nurses must use food banks to get by, Prime Minister Theresa May explained there are "many complex reasons", which earned her widespread derision.
Scrapping punitive sanctions
The main opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn has been eager to press the topic, repeatedly raising it at rallies, debates and during television interviews.
Its manifesto promises a raft of welfare reforms with the aim of reducing reliance on food banks. These include the scrapping of punitive sanctions against benefit recipients and the reduction of delays in processing claimants under the new streamlined Universal Credit benefit system.
Labour has also proposed the abolition of the "bedroom tax", which reduces housing benefit for residents of a council property who are deemed to have a spare bedroom. The much-maligned policy was intended to free up housing for those in overcrowded dwellings, but a Newcastle University study concluded it "increased poverty and had broad-ranging adverse effects on health, well-being and social relationships".
"Since I've been here, two years in September, it's pretty much doubled," says Tara Osman, the manager of the North Paddington Food Bank, noting a significant increase since last November, when further benefit cuts came into effect.
"We've got people here in the community with no money and we have people who have some money but are struggling."
After picking up some bags of cereal, bread and canned food - donated by local supermarkets and bakeries - Leo, a lifelong resident of the area, explains how he began using the service.
After 14 years of driving for Royal Mail, his girlfriend became seriously ill, and he lost his job last July while acting as her carer before she passed away from liver cirrhosis. Though he consistently looked for driving work through friends and contacts, he was unfamiliar with computers and did not have a CV. He was sanctioned twice for a total of six months for not seeking work, receiving only 26 British pounds, or $33, in this period.
"If this food bank weren't open, I could guarantee I'd be locked up in prison," he says. "You've got to go out shoplifting. That's all you can do. There have been days where I've been indoors and had no toiletries and no food. For three or four days, I've starved myself to death."
He's thankful for the effort put in by volunteers at the community centre, but finds his situation isolating and depressing. Without money to socialise, he rarely leaves his apartment.
"You can't go out for a drink. Your social life's completely finished. You don't go out at all," the 48-year-old says.
|Food is donated by local supermarkets, bakeries and churches [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]|
Dispel the stigma
Around a table, several volunteers discuss how common it is for people to approach the threshold of the building, only to begin crying or to turn away. They often have to be coaxed in, Osman says.
Though community organisers do their best to dispel the stigma, many of those who are eligible for food aid still refuse to accept it out of shame or embarrassment.
Debbie, who works with an addiction treatment charity, is here on behalf of her daughter, who is recovering from post-natal depression and has had her benefits delayed.
"Because she's only 20, she has a bit of a stigma about coming here," she says.
She has watched the election coverage keenly, but has been disappointed with much of what she's seen.
"[Politicians] try to pretend there aren't any food banks and they're not needed," she says calmly, over a cup of tea in the centre, her voice edged with frustration. "It's people from our own community giving and supporting because we see the reality of what is happening."
Debbie plans to vote Labour, but believes the government needs to address the wider issue of underfunding in health, education and housing.
"I don't think [the election] will change anything. I don't think what's happening in this country is going to be a quick fix, and I worry about generations coming after us."
|Debbie is collecting food for her daughter, who suffers from post-natal depression, but is too embarrassed to use a food bank. An estimated 2,000 food banks operate in the UK [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]|
Those with long-term illnesses and disabilities are particularly vulnerable to incorrect assessment by the DWP.
Over half of disabled people declared fit to work successfully appealed DWP decisions. Former civil servants who worked as assessors in the DWP have revealed how they were obliged to pressure claimants into looking for jobs even when they were aware of their inability to work.
"I've got some serious illnesses but those serious illnesses don't come under the category of what they're asking for in the DWP," says James, 52, who has been homeless for over a decade.
With Conservatives in, homeless people and people that are coming to food banks have got no chance.
Despite suffering from testicular cancer, pancreatitis, duodenitis, gout, arthritis and a painkiller addiction, James has been ruled fit to work.
He is challenging this decision through the courts, but his benefits have been frozen for eight months, forcing him to spend all his savings.
"You can't be treating people like this when they fail, and there's a lot of people out there that are failing and they're walking through this door every day," he says.
James did not receive information on how to register to vote without a fixed address, but hopes Corbyn might bring some welcome change from the new status quo.
"With Conservatives in, homeless people and people that are coming to food banks have got no chance," James says. They're causing people to have mental health problems instead of helping people with them."
Lack of compassion
Users of this west London food bank spoke frequently about the byzantine nature of the benefits system, with endless applications and re-applications to different schemes, which can take months only to leave them back where they started. The centre, like many others, also runs an information clinic, where volunteers offer guidance on applications and sanctions.
Ken, 54, worked as a systems analyst for IBM, a tech multinational corporation, for several years - travelling the world before his wife's illness and his own epilepsy left him unable to find work. He is now a full-time carer for his wife, who cannot feed or bathe herself, and is waiting for a liver transplant.
|Ken has not received benefits in weeks because of a processing delay [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]|
While being moved from the Personal Independence Payment disability allowance to the new Universal Credit system, they have not received benefits in five weeks and have been told it may take a further two months before payments resume.
Attempts to resolve this have failed and he has not yet been able to receive a carer's allowance, leaving him in debt to friends and family.
He could scarcely believe Prime Minister May's comments about "complex reasons" when he saw them on television.
"The reason you go to a food bank is because you're f***ing hungry and you haven't got enough food," he says. "That's it. You don't go there by choice. It's kind of demeaning. If there were any alternative you would take it.
"There's no compassion at all. I think Corbyn's got it. I genuinely do, but he won't get in."
Though Ken will vote Labour, he lives in nearby Kensington, one of London's wealthiest areas and a predictably Conservative seat. As a result, he thinks it's unlikely he'll be represented by anyone familiar with the sharp end of the benefits system.
"We'll be strolling down the road with our little bag of Pop-Tarts or whatever and someone will scream past us in a Lamborghini," he says.
Source: Al Jazeera News