“Most people we see never thought they would ever be in the position of having to ask for help,” says Stella West-Harling, the founder of the Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub. “We do ask ‘have you used food bank before?’ Most reply they’ve never even thought about it.”
The hub has helped growing numbers of local people in food poverty as a result of Covid, and has witnessed close-up the emerging phenomenon of the “newly hungry” in which previously relatively comfortably off families have been forced to resort to food banks and the benefit system to survive.
Out of 130 people who approached the Devon-based hub for food support between March and September, 110 had never previously needed charity food help. “I’m seeing people dropping into poverty because Covid hit, and they suddenly realise they don’t have any reserves,” says West-Harling.
Many are young families “up to their neck in debt,” she says, people who have taken advantage of easy credit or over-extended to get on the housing ladder. “If you are on the minimum wage and 20% goes [under furlough] you still have bills and debts. Many can’t afford to feed themselves.”
It is not only the young who have suffered. West-Harling originally set up the hub, a not-for-profit company, to provide a nutritious meals-on-wheelsstyle service for isolated older people in the county. Many of them, sometimes living in draughty old houses in lonely “genteel” poverty, have struggled under Covid.
Self-employed people, often running their own businesses, have found themselves in unexpected hardship and feel acute shame about relying on charity, says West-Harling. “I delivered food round to a chap who owned a tool repair business. He was devastated, saying: ‘I should be the one taking food round to people.’”
In one case, they took food to a vulnerable young woman who was stranded alone in rural isolation. She had been too scared to leave her house during the pandemic. “She eventually phoned in terrible distress as she had not eaten in three days and had eked out what little food she had over a period of weeks.”
West-Harling, who founded and runs the Ashburton cookery school, says Covid has highlighted hidden areas of rural deprivation in Devon as well as the fragility of the tourism-farming-hospitality economy. The hub has been supported well by local volunteers and food banks, but needs financial help to keep going.
It is a shame the UK has never eradicated food poverty, she says, though she believes there will always be people who need help. “The way forward is a compassionate society. You cannot deal with poverty, social isolation and loneliness without compassion.”