‘Donations are Really, Really Down’Mounting Concerns Over Brexit Compounding Cost of Living Crisis
Organisations are worried that the effort to help those struggling this winter is being hampered by supply chain issues
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“I’m now getting calls from people, just individuals, saying ‘I’m really desperate, can you help me get food?’,” Chris Wilkie, co-founder and chair of Plan Zheroes, told Byline Times. The charity uses an online platform to distribute surplus food from supermarkets and local businesses to charities.
In recent months, Plan Zheroes has been receiving fewer donations – fuelling concerns that supply chain issues caused by Brexit are limiting its response to the cost of living crisis.
It’s little surprise that the cost of living crisis is being felt keenly in the midlands. Seventeen of the 20 most deprived areas in the UK are in the midlands or the north of England.
The vulnerability of many of these communities to the current economic turmoil, with inflation set to reach 10.1% and food inflation at a 42-year high, is obvious to every service striving to support those hardest hit.
Around four miles east of Birmingham’s city centre is Hodge Hill. It is densely populated, with its industrial, auto-manufacturing past reflected in its rugged architecture. The constituency has the highest fuel poverty rate in the UK at 27.4%, compared to the national average of 13.4%. A Birmingham City Council report in 2015 found that “levels of deprivation in Hodge Hill are very high”, with 43.4% of children in the constituency being in poverty. The area voted by 51.5% to leave the EU in 2016.
“There is talk that people who live in the area will be congregating in the communal halls to keep warm,” says Charlie Holmes of the ACE Project, which supports elderly people in east Birmingham.
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While some organisations are thinking about how to help the vulnerable cope with rising heating bills, others are stepping in to provide emergency food for families.
Week after week, the Shard End’s Kingfisher food bank in Hodge Hill sees first-hand how this crisis is impacting families. Andrea Chance-Osman, project manager at the food bank, said she had seen a “very noticeable increase” in the amount of people needing help due to the cost of living.
“Sometimes, more than double our usual amount of food parcels are going out,” she told Byline Times. “People visiting our food bank are having to turn to us due to the increased cost of food and the obvious one, their utility bills… The repeated story from our users is that they are afraid of using their heating as they just cannot afford to.”
She described meeting a local woman who lives in assisted accommodation, where disabled or elderly residents are too afraid to put the heating on. The ongoing crisis has forced the food bank to evolve its service and now partners with Warmer Homes West Midlands to provide advice on conserving energy.
The Brexit Effect?
But while the need is greater than ever, the Kingfisher food bank has found that – like Plan Zheroes – its donations have halved, including from supermarket chains.
According to Mary McGrath, CEO of the Foodcycle charity, which provides vulnerable people in Birmingham with a hot meal, the decrease in donations is partly caused by ‘just about managing’ shoppers buying up the reduced-to-clear items which previously would have been donated by supermarkets to food banks. “This is a new challenge,” she said.
Yet, although the cost of living crisis is partly to blame, not least when it comes to donations from the public, the Brexit effect is also being cited.
“The summer period is always quiet and we usually expect things to pick up around about this time, but they really haven’t,” Chris Wilkie of Plan Zheroes said. “Donations are really, really down at the moment… It could be Brexit. It could be the cost of living.”
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Indeed, several of the groups mentioned Brexit-related concerns – namely supply chain difficulties hindering the amount of food reaching supermarkets and, from there, reaching food banks. Supermarkets and individuals struggle to donate goods to the food bank if those goods aren’t even found on shop shelves.
Fifty-six per cent of Brits have recently experienced food shortages on the shop shelves, according to a 2021 YouGov poll, compared to less than 18% among all other Western European countries.
The employment landscape of Birmingham and the midlands more generally is also still reliant on car manufacturing – a sector that equally relies on the free and easy movement of goods, which has been inhibited by Brexit. The UK’s trade performance earlier this year fell to its worst level since records began in 1955, due to weak exports.
It appears as though the cost of living crisis is being compounded by Brexit – pushing those already struggling into deeper poverty. With Westminster remaining gripped in Conservative Party drama, meaningful action has been slow to arrive.
For Andrea, who helps to run the local food bank, the failure to tackle the impact of the cost of living crisis in east Birmingham and across Britain can be summed up in one word: “Disgraceful.”
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.