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Lochaber Foodbank has had its busiest year after providing food to more than 1,300 people in the last 12 months – an increase of 18 per cent on last year.
According to its annual figure, the foodbank fed 1,383 people between April 2018 and the end of March 2019, of which 543 were children. That is the equivalent of 16,404 meals.
Since opening in 2014, the foodbank has more than doubled its output, a situation described by foodbank manager Alex McConachie as ‘unreal’.
Mr McConachie believes the increase is down to low wages and continued problems with the much-maligned Universal Credit benefit scheme.
He told the Lochaber Times: ‘People are waiting five weeks or so for payments. It’s unbelievable. We have families, some with up to five children, coming to us as well as a lot of single people.
‘Some people are really reliant on us. For some it’s just a top to help them get by, others just come in once. But there are other people who come in regularly. It keeps getting worse.’
Mr McConachie said part of the issue is also a reliance on low paid, seasonal work which, he says, makes it difficult for people to improve their situation.
‘If they are on low wages they cannot save money. A lot of them are homeless, but if they get put up in a room and if they do get a job, they lose their benefits and can only afford to pay rent and bills.’
Open for two hours, three days a week, Lochaber Foodbank is part of a nationwide network of foodbanks supported by the Trussel Trust. It operates on a referral basis, with vouchers exchanged for meals for a set number of days. In five years, the foodbank has helped provide more than 57,000 meals to aid individuals and families facing hardship.
As problems and delays with Universal Credit persist, Mr McConachie expects numbers to rise again next year, especially amid the uncertainty of Brexit.
However, he thanked the people of Lochaber for their generous support over the years without which, he says, the foodbank could not continue.
Carrie Starkie, project worker at Lochaber Hope charity, said that the foodbank is an ‘invaluable resource’ however, the surge in numbers is ‘not an encouraging sign of economic well-being in our community’.
Lochaber MP Ian Blackford described the figures as ‘shocking’ and highlighted the ‘appalling impact’ of continued austerity measures on communities.
He said: ‘We know there’s a direct link between harmful policies such as Universal Credit and food bank use. The Tories should be ashamed of these figures—and they must urgently change track.’
Constituency MSP Kate Forbes also felt recent changes to the welfare system have hit the poorest the hardest.
‘Those figures beg the question why – why families with children in this day and age are dependent on foodbanks. The fact that more than 500 recipients are children is startling. Unfortunately many families are in work and still reliant on foodbanks because of the uncertain and poorly paid nature of their work. That, too, has to change.’
Mr McConachie said the foodbank is always looking for volunteers to help at their premises at Airds Crossing, on Fort William High Street, opposite the parade.
‘I wish we could close the place but where there’s a demand, we need to stay open,’ he continued. ‘
‘People in Lochaber are fantastic. There’s more and more people donating money so we can buy what we need, which is great.’