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Crisis for Bishop's Stortford Food Bank as demand almost trebles and costs increase by 633%

The Covid-19 pandemic is putting increasing pressure on Bishop's Stortford Food Bank, which has seen its costs rise 633%.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the charity needed around £207 a week to supply 12 boxes of provisions to the town's most deprived people. Now it is struggling to support up to 32 individuals or families in need and its weekly bill has rocketed to £1,518.

The shortfall prompted a plea for help to the Brazier Trust, administered by the town council, which granted £2,500 to bolster the good cause's bank balance.

The charity told councillors: "The Bishop's Stortford Food Bank has responded to increased demand and trebled its normal weekly output so that 30-plus boxes of food per week are being delivered to those in financial hardship and to relieve food poverty.

"Sadly it is envisaged demand will increase as the economy is hit by the impact of the pandemic crisis and greater numbers are affected by financial hardship and poverty."

That grim prediction is supported by the increasing number of people claiming out-of-work benefits in East Herts, which rocketed by 258% between February and May, and the town's Citizens Advice team is reporting a similar hike in requests for help.

The pandemic has not only ratcheted up demand for the food bank, it has piled on additional costs.

Donations of groceries have dwindled as shoppers reduced their trips to supermarkets because of social distancing while panic buying made some items difficult to source. Previously 90% of demand could be met from donations, but this has dwindled to 60% and costs have increased tenfold from £72 a week to £720.

The report to the Brazier Trust said: "Whilst supermarket collection points continue to yield some donations, those received through banks, schools and churches have ceased completely. Lent is normally a period of increased donations which allows some replenishment of post-Christmas stocks. This opportunity has been hugely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic this year."

Donations are now dropped into a shopping trolley in the lobby of the Methodist Church in South Street and quarantined for 72 hours to minimise risk.

However, shortages have forced the food bank team to dip into reserves to buy in bulk from wholesalers. It has also had to invest in an additional laptop and printer to meet demand.

The charity has had to safeguard its volunteers and recruit new helpers as 80% of the original team were over 70 and needed to shield in line with Government advice.

Equipment such as gloves, antibacterial spray and wipes, often in short supply, have had to be provided to safeguard helpers and recipients.

Cardboard boxes, which could previously be reused, now have to be replaced at £10.20 a week and labelling costs an extra £5.

The food bank has begun including cleaning and laundry products in its provision to boost hygiene. Previously they were given sparingly and the average cost of such items per box was just £1. That has risen to £6, creating a £180 shortfall each week for 30 boxes.

The food bank told the town council that as part of its crisis management, it has suspended contributions towards electricity and gas provision, but it would like to reinstate this service in the autumn.

"Clearly, while the weather has been warmer the need to secure food supplies has been the priority for those in poverty, furloughed, shielding or isolating, but in time fuel poverty will also become an urgent issue," it warned.

Discount retailer B&M has donated £1,500 to the bank's efforts and allowed it to convert the grant into food items from its South Street store.

Bishop's Stortford's mayor, Cllr Norma Symonds, is a food bank volunteer so took no part in the Brazier Trust grant deliberations, but she said: "We've been very, very busy looking after people who are in poverty or who have lost their jobs or been furloughed. If they apply for Universal Credit, they have to wait a month to get that money."

* You can donate to the food bank via its Just Giving page. For full details of how else you can donate, including giving food, visit its website at https://www.bishopsstortfordfoodbank.com/.

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