At Trinity Foodbank in Bury, the tales of desperation come thick and heartbreakingly fast.
There’s the family who flushes the toilet with stale pasta water to save on bills, and the retiree who is so energy-efficient that he makes a pot of tea in the morning to last all day.
There’s the mother of three, who has stopped doing her own laundry to reduce the strain on machines, and the 45-year-old, who recently went four days without electricity after her meter ran out. “We tried to cook a can of soup on candles,” she says. “You really can’t cook soup on candles.”
Recently, the volunteers here have noticed a new phenomenon. When users pick up a grocery package, some now only ask for items to eat cold. “They tell us they can’t afford to heat things up,” says Caroline Houlker, who helps out. “We live in a nightmare.”
The UK’s cost of living crisis will push 1.3 million people into poverty over the next 12 months, according to the Resolution Think Tank. Rising food prices, fuel costs and energy bills will cause the largest decline in living standards since records began in 1956.
But against this disastrous backdrop, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring declaration this week was widely panned for doing almost nothing to help those most in need.
Its two headline freebies — a fuel tax cut and a raise in the Social Security threshold — will do little for those most suffering, analysts say. “A modest giveaway” that “will not be enough to protect poorer households,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. he said.
And at Trinity Foodbank – one of a dozen such services in Bury – few would believe that life is going to get anything but inexorably tougher in the coming months.
“We’re trying not to get political here,” says Tina Harrison, the retired nursing home manager who founded the service two years ago.
“But week in and week out we see people in the worst of situations and [Wednesday’s statement] done nothing for them,” is the reply. “The poorest were practically ignored. What’s the point of saving a few cents on gas if people can’t afford to drive their cars anyway?”
Trinity itself was established in March 2020 in response to the difficulties caused by the pandemic at Trinity Baptist Church in the Radcliffe area of Greater Manchester – home to some of England’s most deprived areas.
For those first few months, 125 food packages were being given away each week – each filled with fruits, vegetables, cans and other basic necessities donated by locals and businesses. But as the pressure from Covid-19 eased, so did demand. In late summer it was less than 50 packages per week.
“Now we’re back to 75,” says Harrison, who lives 10 minutes from the church. “And that goes up. We had four new households in two hours this morning. And the energy price hike won’t come until next month.”
How concerned is she about what is to come? “It’s constantly going through my head,” says the 63-year-old. “Especially next winter. The concern is that we get such demand that we have to turn people away. And then what?”
A pause while she thinks about her own question and then asks another. “Where do hungry people go when they can’t even walk to a food bank?” she asks.
That fear is compounded by the fact that such services across the country are now predicting something of a double whammy. On the one hand, they expect more users in the coming months. On the other hand, they predict a drop in donations as the pressure mounts on more and more people and more and more companies.
“I understand that he [Mr Sunak] is in a tough spot,” Harrison says, citing rising prices caused by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “But we should take care of the people and not leave them to ever higher bills.”
Abandoned is exactly what people feel here.
Few want to give their names The Independent for fear of stigmatization, but with the free coffee and toast that is served here every Friday, one wish is expressed again and again: a system that does not leave those in need dependent on such panels.
“I’m not asking much,” says Jolene Bates, a 38-year-old single mother of three, who says she can’t work because both of her sons have serious illnesses. “I’m not asking you to live in luxury. I just want to [my benefits] to cover the essentials.”
Her biggest sorrow, she says, is not being able to start with her children anymore. “On the weekends, they ask to go to the movies or something,” she says. “And I have to tell you, no, we’re going back to the park. The swings are free.”
What would the users have liked to see here, how the chancellor acted on Wednesday?
Here, too, one answer dominates. Telling the energy giants to give up some of their profits – more than £1billion for the top six companies last year – and help those most in need.
One person here, Angela Jackson — a full-time mother of four — tells how she once called her own energy company after she couldn’t afford to top up the family meter. They told her they would give her a £15 credit – but she would have to pay it back.
“Pay it back?” she recalls today in disbelief. “With what? Keys?”
In fact, Harrison himself has had similar discussions with energy companies on behalf of the people here. “They don’t move,” she says. “It always has to be paid back. It is wrong. It feeds on the misery of the people.”