Norwich food bank charity uncovers 'hidden hunger'

The fridge is almost empty in Gemma Easter and Darren Harcourt's home

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A Norfolk charity giving food to people in crisis said it had seen more than a 15-fold increase in its number of clients.

Volunteers at Norwich Foodbank said the increase reflected "hidden hunger" in the city as awareness of their work spread.

According to its data, 505 people, including 151 children, accessed the service in September. When the charity started in November 2010, it fed 33 people.

"Part of that increase is there's greater demand because of the recession and part of the increase is basically because people now know about us," said manager Grant Habershon.

The charity said the biggest reason for people needing a food parcel was benefits delays, accounting for about a third of cases in Norwich.

Grant Habershon Grant Habershon said demand for the food bank had risen partly because of the recession

Low income accounts for another 20% and benefit changes 14%.

The Department of Work and Pensions maintains that its processing times have remained consistent with over 80% of claims turned around in under 16 days.

The food bank is operated by The Trussell Trust, a charity set up in 1997 initially to fight deprivation in Bulgaria. It said it anticipated feeding more than 200,000 people across the UK in 2012-13.

It hands out food on a short-term basis to people referred by a care agency, carrying out checks before distributing boxes to discourage dependency.

'We wouldn't have a meal'

Baby Phoebe

Gemma Easter, 28, and Darren Harcourt, 36, live in Norwich with their baby daughter, Phoebe. They receive Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit and Darren, who has learning difficulties, also receives Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

On 18 September, they discovered that their Income Support had been stopped and were told to apply for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). By the middle of October their money had not come through and they were referred to Norwich Foodbank.

Phoebe, five months, is on formula milk for which Gemma receives tokens. Gemma said that had she not received the free food, she would have considered pawning her possessions to pay for groceries.

Darren said: "It's hard to eat, like, proper meals. The food parcels aren't proper meals."

Gemma said: "Our priority is buying nappies. So if there's not enough money... we wouldn't have a meal."

Mr Habershon said many of the cases the charity saw involved people who had literally run out of food and money.

"We went out to see one particular family where we were called out in an emergency. There were two adults and three children in the house and there was one bag of rice," he said.

Mancroft ward, including parts of the city centre, was the area where demand was greatest. Between April and August 2012, 264 people were helped there.

Over the same period, 156 were helped in Wensum ward and 154 in Mile Cross.

The food bank also received more than 11 tons in donations in September as churches and schools holding harvest festivals diverted food their way.

Mr Habershon said the charity also held collections at supermarkets, and that ASDA customers were the most generous.

In a statement, the Department of Work and Pensions said: "We recognise the welfare system we inherited is broken, trapping on benefits the very people it was designed to help.

"Our reforms will transform the lives of some of the poorest families in society by making work pay and lifting thousands out of poverty.

"Jobcentre Plus processes thousands of benefit payments each day and we can also pay crisis loans to help people who have emergency costs or benefit delays.

"Where appropriate, we also refer people to the Trussell Trust following their request for us to do so."

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