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To her colleagues at the day care centre in Hull, Charlotte Burton is an independent woman who works full time and manages just fine. They admire her for biking to work at this time of year, when chilly winds blow and the River Hull swells with rainwater.
Only her mother knows that Burton, 34 and single, bikes because she cannot afford the $4.75 bus fare, that she huddles under a blanket at night to save on heating bills and that she recently started relying on a local food bank because by the end of the month she was eating only one meal a day — pasta mostly, or bread.
“I was hungry,” she said in her kitchen one recent morning, fiddling with a piece of paper covered in numbers. Her monthly budget: Rent, gas, electricity, taxes, down payments for the television and the debt she owes her landlord. That leaves about $100 a month for food.
The working poor, long a part of the social landscape in the US, are becoming more common on this side of the Atlantic. As their numbers grow, so too does hunger — a feeling Burton describes as a nagging sensation, not pain as such, more an obsession that consumes all your thoughts and energy. It is no longer confined to the homeless or those struggling to make ends meet on state benefits in the world’s sixth-richest economy, say charities, economists and even some members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.
In Britain, five years of economic weakness, austerity and rising prices have left a mark: Average hourly earnings have risen a mere 7 per cent while the cost of living has gone up almost 20 per cent, leaving at least 500,000 people reliant on food aid, three times as many as a year ago, according to the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that runs a network of more than 400 food banks.
Food banks distribute food for free or at heavy discounts to people generally referred to them by government agencies. They have sprung up in unlikely places, from southern commuter towns to Westminster, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. Steve Baker, a Conservative lawmaker, says that one in five children in his constituency of Wycombe goes to bed hungry, calling the figure a “scandalous indictment of the safety net that is the welfare state”.
Hull once had a thriving fishing industry and bustling harbour. Today, in per capita terms, it has the greatest number of jobless benefit claimants in the country. More than one in three children here live under the poverty line.
The city’s reputation has never been great. More than once, Hull was voted the worst place to live in Britain.
Things have actually been looking up recently. In a former fruit market in the rapidly gentrifying waterfront of the Humber estuary, hip art galleries and music venues helped Hull win Britain’s “City of Culture” designation for 2017. But so far little of that regeneration has trickled down.
Burton’s local food bank is supplied by a charity that until four years ago sent food only to developing countries like Sierra Leone. Today, 80 per cent of its work is in Britain.
“I never thought I would be doing this in my own country, in my own town,” said Colin Raine, one of the founders of the charity, Real Aid, which got its start in 2001.
Real Aid delivers to half a dozen community centres in Hull but also runs its own food bank in nearby Bridlington, a faded seaside resort that has lost most of its trade to cheap vacation packages in Southern Europe. Three in four food bank users here work, Lindsay Killick, Raine’s warehouse manager said. The vast majority are deeply embarrassed, he said. On a recent morning, a line formed outside a room above a shop in a Victorian-era arcade. Among those waiting were a shop clerk, a restaurant worker and a grandmother who looks after her grandson during the day and is too embarrassed to tell her daughter that she does not have the money to buy the boy food. They pay $2.50 for what would cost more than $30 in the supermarket, a token payment but one that matters. “It feels a little less like charity,” said Karen Farrow, 24, who came with her three-year-old daughter Imogen. Shyly, Farrow helped herself to potatoes, milk, canned kidney beans, cereal and soap. It was her first time here.
Few here have noticed the economic recovery politicians in London boast about. The economy is set to expand 2.4 per cent this year. Unemployment has dropped to 7.4 per cent nationally, the lowest level since 2009, but at nearly 15 per cent it remains stubbornly high here in Hull.