Gordon Brown speaking in front of Five Food Banks | The cost of living crisis in the UK

IIn a warehouse in the heart of his old constituency, Gordon Brown searches boxes full of toothpaste and ponders how times have changed since he was a Labor chancellor on an anti-poverty mission.

Toothpaste, along with shampoo, toilet rolls and sanitary towels, are just some of the staples available in the “bank of banks” scheme the former prime minister helped set up in Lochgelly in Fife. Big Hoose offers not only food, but also clothing, bedding, toiletries and anything else a struggling family might need during a cost-of-living crisis.

In a sign of rising costs of living stress, 45,000 households in the county have benefited from the scheme since it began less than a year ago. Staff on the project noticed an immediate increase in requests for assistance when energy bills rose on October 1.

“That’s what’s happening on Earth,” Brown says. “I don’t know if any member of the government understands the scale of the problem.”

This week, the Trussell Trust warned that the cost of living crisis is pushing UK food banks to a “breaking point”, with nearly 1.3 million emergency packages delivered to hungry people in just six months. More than 320,000 people have turned to food banks for the first time.

Gordon Brown helps with supplies that housing officer Gary Lynch collects for the tenant.
Gordon Brown helps with supplies that housing officer Gary Lynch collects for the tenant. Photo: Mordo MacLeod/The Guardian

Brown views The Big Hoose as a necessary evolution of the food bank concept, offering a wide range of goods and self-help support. It’s a great professional operation, with a click-and-collect system located in a warehouse provided by Purvis Group, a local, rent-free logistics company.

Amazon is one of 20 companies that offer surplus merchandise. Furnishings that can only be used many times in hotels are donated by laundry companies. A team of volunteers is on standby to fix household appliances when they break down. The idea is to be pro-environment as well as anti-poverty, while recycling goods that would otherwise be destroyed.

The scheme was so successful that it was expanded to include Edinburgh and the Lothian region of Scotland. Mark Drakeford, First Minister for Wales, made a visit with the idea of ​​setting up something similar, as did Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester.

However, Brown is concerned that projects like the Big Hoose will be needed in Britain in 2022. With Chancellor Jeremy Hunt preparing to announce a new government austerity drive in Thursday’s autumn statement, the former chancellor and former prime minister says: It’s sad to see everything we’ve done as a Labor government – from confirmed starting positions to tax breaks and educational maintenance allowances – is being cut or removed.”

Toiletries and diapers are a constant demand from struggling families.
Toiletries and diapers are a constant demand from struggling families. Photo: Mordo MacLeod/The Guardian

Food banks were rare in Britain during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, but their use has grown steadily over the past decade. In the five years to April – before the latest increase – the Trussell Trust increased the number of food parcels by more than 80%.

Brown says most people who receive assistance from the Big Hoose Project are not unemployed but have difficulty making ends meet on minimum wage jobs. The scheme contains a coordinating charity, the Kirkcaldy Rural Family Center, and operates through more than 500 separate organizations, which email orders for goods they believe are needed by the people trying to help them.

“Everyone has to be referred. You can’t go in and pick up things, and then sell them on Gumtree,” says Brown. “It became the last line of defense. It is an effective safety net. I never thought we would go back to this.

Families with children sleep on the floor under one sheet. Four children take turns one night by four to sleep on the sofa. People have stopped heating their homes. There is a demand for quilts, sheets, blankets, sleeping bags and hot water bottles.”

Gary Lynch, who does the pickup on behalf of Kingdom Housing, a Fife-based housing association, says he has asked for help moving a homeless single man who doesn’t have anything in his name into an apartment. “Something like this is priceless,” Lynch says. “It’s a lot of money to go out and buy these things.”

The warehouse looks like Aladdin’s Cave. It contains trimmers, hair clippers, golf clubs, food clips and headphones, all of which will be sold to raise funds to cover operating costs of £300,000 a year. There are also large baskets with things necessary for people in need: cribs, changing mats, diapers; aerators as alternatives to clothes dryers; Air fryers to reduce oven use. Each referral contains requests for basic hygiene items.

We knew there was a need. We didn’t know how bad it was. Before Covid 19, there were people on the bread line. Then Covid brought a second wave. Now the cost-of-living crisis has brought a third wave,” said Kelly Rogers, the team manager at The Shack.

The Big Hoose stocks food and goods ranging from cosmetics, health products, home supplies and furnishings, to clothing for families in need in a venture that includes Amazon and charities.
The Big Hoose stocks food and goods ranging from cosmetics, health products, home supplies and furnishings, to clothing for families in need in a venture that includes Amazon and charities. Photo: Mordo MacLeod/The Guardian

Brown says there are three key components to a successful plan: a coordinating charity; referral system; and storage capacity.

“We trust charities to know who needs what. If they say there is a shortage of family, we will go out and try to get the family. Businesses have goods that we know people need and we know people who need them. We can link them without using a price mechanism.”

Lana Moffat, the family worker at the hut, said she used to help people manage their budgets, but now they don’t have budget money. “We are now seeing how we can support them with things they consider luxuries: cleaning products, toilet paper. Toilet tissues shouldn’t be a luxury in this day and age.”

Leaving the warehouse, Brown—who misses being a Member of Parliament—pays a visit to Lochgelly Town Hall, where Lo’gelly Lunches volunteers serve meal Tuesdays and a Friday food bank to 200 local families in their books. Demand is steadily increasing, says May Ferguson, chair of the board. “Real folk come here. They are grateful. They don’t misuse it.”