Increasing numbers of low-income families are using food banks, prompting the Government to investigate why there has been such a dramatic rise in handouts.
In Bradford, volunteers at a charity supporting individuals and families in need fears it will be distributing 700 food parcels a month within weeks.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has commissioned research to examine the extent of emergency food aid, amid concerns that increasing numbers of low-paid and benefit-dependent households are being forced to use charity food sources.
Across the district, rising numbers of people from all walks of life are queuing up for food handouts, or receiving food parcels from community workers.
The Trussell Trust in Bradford is distributing nearly double the number of food boxes from 12 months ago. In January, a total of 120 vouchers were accepted, helping 177 adults and 98 children, compared with 75 vouchers for 97 adults and 70 children the same time last year.
A volunteer at the Trust, based in the Light Church, Bradford, said sanctions on those seeking benefits could be to blame for rising demand.
"They could be waiting for benefits or are believed to have not looked for enough jobs and could have been sanctioned without benefits for weeks and have nothing at all,” she said.
Les Szpakowski, leader of Streetwise, run by the Life Church, which serves hot food in Bradford city centre twice a week, said there had been a huge rise in numbers.
“When I first started six years ago, there were 25 people. Last year we got 70 people,” he said.
The Bradford Metropolitan Food Bank is distributing more than 500 parcels a month - a sharp rise from its recent output of 300 packages a month.
Founder Lashman Singh says the recession and benefit changes have had a significant impact.
“Increasing numbers of people are finding themselves without jobs, then you have all the changes in the benefit system. I dread to think what will happen in April when the changes take effect,” he said.
Volunteer Keith Thomson says food parcel distribution has doubled over the last year.
“Four volunteers bagged up between 48 to 60 parcels this morning,” he said. “We have done remarkably well for donations, but the food is going out faster than it is coming in. We store it in an old church and we have a spaghetti pew, a couple of baked beans pews, a soup pew and so on. We have noticed how quickly the food supplies go down. I predict we’ll be sending out 700 parcels a month by mid-summer.”
Keith said rising numbers of people are living in “stressed conditions”. The charity works with a range of people, including asylum seekers.
“Not all of them can work or claim benefits, so what can they do? We can’t have a situation where someone just yards away from where we stand is starving,” he said.
“Most people we help have short-term needs; they may have domestic problems, or lead a transient life.
“Many are dependent on benefits, but the system is under strain and will get tighter. The bedroom tax will move people around. Then there’s housing benefit, which is currently paid directly to landlords, but the Government is proposing that all the money is paid to the tenant, who will then be expected to pay their landlord.
“I foresee all sorts of problems with that, not least tenants being evicted. In the long-run the idea of making people more responsible for their budgets may work, but in practise there will be immediate problems when people are suddenly expected to deal with large sums of money they’ve never had before.”
Despite the strain on the charity, Keith is heartened by the support from Bradford people.
“We recently had 43 banana boxes of food from donations by Asda shoppers, and a teddy bear tombola in Morrisons raised £121 – not bad for an hour’s effort. It’s that kind of support that is overwhelming, and very uplifting,” said Keith.
“We have 500 packets of cereal and 500 packets of sugar going out every month. We’ve just bought a tonne of milk. Every parcel has cereal, milk, sugar and tea as a core and we also include pasta, pasta sauce, and things like tins of beans, spaghetti, fruit and rice pudding. The public’s support is excellent, but the food is going out faster than it’s coming in.”