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Stockton food bank: 'Dealers don't swap drugs for a tin of beans'

By Adam Clarkson
Reporter, BBC Radio Tees

Published
image captionMark Horkan said people needed more help than ever before.

Food bank organisers and users have hit out at claims free school meal vouchers can be used for alcohol and drugs amid Marcus Rashford's campaign to get them extended to the holidays.

It has come after Workington Tory MP Mark Jenkinson said "I know in my constituency that, as tiny as a minority it might be, food parcels are sold or traded" for illegal substances.

A Stockton woman who relies on the parcels said: "What kind of drug dealer would swap drugs for a tin of beans or pasta? It's just not true."

The government said £63m it had given councils was a better way to support families, rather than vouchers.

image captionThe White Feather Project offers low cost food

The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the BBC's Unusual Times podcast the idea parents would spend food vouchers on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs was "pathetic".

She has used supported food services for her and her two-year-old daughter, and said: "The vouchers worked for everybody.

"[Some MPs] are trying to say it was used for prostitution and drugs. You can't use a voucher for drugs. You aren't allowed to use them for booze."

Some MPs have expressed concerns families will become reliant on free meals.

Mansfield Conservative MP Ben Bradley warned they could cause "long term state dependency to millions".

And Redcar MP Jacob Young, also a Conservative, said "schools, supermarkets and concerned parents" had "witnessed people using the £15 a week voucher on alcohol, tobacco or on unhealthy food".

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image captionMarcus Rashford's petition to get the government to change its mind has more than one million signatures

Rashford's campaign

Manchester United and England footballer Rashford has called on the government to provide free lunches during school holidays amid fears over family incomes during the coronavirus pandemic.

His Parliamentary petition said "no child should be going hungry".

The UK government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after a high-profile campaign by Rashford, did the same for the summer holiday.

But last week, Conservative MPs rejected Labour's Opposition Day motion to further extend free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling.

The government said it had already introduced more effective measures to support families.

Families and community groups on Teesside said the decision not to extend the vouchers across holidays needed to be reversed.

The White Feather Project, which started in March, has been running two community shops in North Ormesby and Brambles Farm where people have been able to get food essentials by making a small donation.

Mark Horkan, who runs the project, said people needed more help than ever before, adding: "If it wasn't for the likes of Marcus Rashford the government would close the door.

"It's all right saying 'no child will go hungry' - they are. It proves it when we have to do this," he said.

Who can get free school meals?

Children may be able to receive free school meals if their parent or carer receives at least one of the following:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided you're not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on - paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit - if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)

A Middlesbrough mother-of-two, who did not want to be named, said the shop in North Ormesby "really helps".

"My kids are 10 and 13, they eat me out of house and home basically" she said. "I'm on benefits. It's been extremely tough."

She said without extra help available, there was a risk her two children would go hungry.

"No kid should go hungry, regardless of their situation. It's absolutely terrible," she added.

image captionThe Thornaby Hub in Stockton is run by community charity Little Sprouts

The Thornaby Hub in Stockton hands out food twice a week and is run by wellbeing charity Little Sprouts.

Debbie Fixter from the charity said the vouchers given to parents over the Easter holiday "absolutely worked".

"When people say they're just a sticking plaster… that's just wrong," she said.

"I know last week, four people sold their phones because they needed food. That's the reality of it.

"Everything is online or on the phone, we make an assumption that people have access to these things but they haven't."

image captionThe White Feather Project runs two community shops

Amanda Bailey, director of the North East Child Poverty Commission, said: "I don't think any parent chooses to be in a position where they struggle to feed their family, and I would challenge anyone to live on the income of someone below the poverty line, month after month, and experience the relentless stress this causes.

"Child poverty is not an unsolvable problem. While the North East has seen the steepest recent increase in rates of child poverty, it actually experienced the biggest reduction between 1999 and 2013, which shows it can be done."

Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said: "We've put the uplift into universal credit, just over £1,000 a year.

"But also very specifically we've put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship... and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that.

"We've put that support in there and I think that's the right way to do it because the schools aren't open so it's making sure that the welfare system can put the support in, targeted where it's needed most."

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Related Topics

  • Middlesbrough
  • Free school meals
  • Stockton-on-Tees
  • Child poverty
  • Food banks
  • Poverty

More on this story

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