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'I believe that if we were not here people would starve'

OVER and over, those arriving at the food bank in the east end of Glasgow expressed the same sentiment:

From left, storeman Bert Costello assembles a parcel at the Glasgow North East Food Bank; Margaret McColl picks up supplies; acting project manager Beth AitkenPhotographs: Mark Mainz
From left, storeman Bert Costello assembles a parcel at the Glasgow North East Food Bank; Margaret McColl picks up supplies; acting project manager Beth AitkenPhotographs: Mark Mainz

"It's a sad day when it comes to this." Contrary to negative depictions of "benefits spongers", most are here for the first time, often having walked miles in the rain, to collect a few bags of shopping to last them three days.

Among them was single mother Margaret McColl, 43, who had been referred to facility, part of The Trussell Trust network, after paying off debts left her with just £68 to live on for a fortnight.

McColl, who has bipolar disorder, said: "I borrowed £40 from my sister to buy Christmas presents, so I had to pay her back, and it hasn't left me with much. My son lives with me, he's 16 and at college, and I've got two dogs to feed as well. You used to be able to get crisis loans [from the Department for Work & Pensions] when you were desperate, but they scrapped that so I've come here.

The Glasgow North East Food Bank has fed more than 370 people since it opened in September last year. It is one of four Trussell Trust units in the city and 37 operating across Scotland. Another six are set to open by the end of March.

Demand for the service has grown exponentially. Since April last year, The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, has fed more than 40,000 Scots, compared with 14,300 in the previous 12 months.

The organisation has been accused of left-wing bias and "scaremongering" by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who has refused to meet Trust chairman David Mould and blasted him for seeking "to link the growth in your network to welfare reform". But for those at the sharp end, the catastrophic effect benefit reform is having on the most vulnerable is clear. Beth Aitken, project manager at the Glasgow North East Food Bank, said: "David has hit the nail on the head. The majority of people who come have had benefit delays or benefit changes.

One man had his Jobseeker's Allowance cut because he fell short of the 18 job applications-a-fortnight target. There was a woman with dyslexia who couldn't fill out the forms and was sanctioned.

"We had a woman come to us who was suicidal. Her purse had been stolen so she had no money and, because of a bereavement, she just didn't feel like there was any point in living. We called the Samaritans and stayed with her and took her home, then made sure they phoned her again on her landline.

"If we weren't here I really think these people would starve."

The centres are all staffed by volunteers, with clients being referred by benefits officers, social workers, housing associations, and organisations such as Women's Aid and Citizens Advice.

Brian (not his real name) was referred by his housing association after benefit sanctions left him with just £10 a week. The 42-year-old father of three did not want to be identified publicly for fear his daughter would be bullied at school.

"You never expect to end up in a situation like this," he said.

"I had a nice house, a good job, we went on holiday every year, I had a car, my wife had a car. You feel ashamed. I must have paid about £70,000 in tax when I was working - you expect to have something to fall back on when it goes wrong." Brian joined the Post Office as a trainee manager in his teens and went on to work for the organisation for 18 years, being promoted to the post of bullion carrier, with a salary of £27,500. He later started his own home-improvements business with his friend, but it collapsed after a road accident.

After that Brian's life unravelled. Out of work, his debts piled up. He sold the family home, split with his wife and eventually spent three years living in a homeless shelter in the southside of Glasgow before finally being allocated a social-rented flat in the city in 2011.

On Friday, he picked up a cheque for £129 to last two weeks, and smiled as he said it was "the most money I've had since February 2012".

A long-running battle with the DWP - which had declared him fit to work and imposed successive penalties on him - eventually left him with as little as £10 a week.

"I went 11 days eating nothing but 12p cans of beans, one can per day," he said. "This [food bank] has been a life saver."

Grandmother Jackie Jenkins, 49, admitted she had not eaten a proper meal "since Christmas Day" after her Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) was cancelled a month ago. Jenkins, who visited the food bank with her two-year-old granddaughter, had previously been on incapacity benefit for chronic back pain and anxiety but had been declared fit to work and switched onto JSA, but failed to find a job.

Caroline McKinney, 39, walked to the food bank from Bridgeton with her dog, Bonnie. After losing her mother three years ago, she was left with no family to turn to for help and fell into debt. When a temporary contract working in a hospital laundry came to an end in August, her only income was JSA, but the payments were docked to pay off debt, leaving her with just £83 a fortnight to live on.

"The gas pre-payment meter takes £13 at a time and that only heats the flat for a few days, so it doesn't go far," she said. "I've seen myself go without food for a couple of days just to keep the flat warm, or go without heating so that I can eat."

Ewan Gurr, Scotland development officer for Trust, said the stories were typical of clients across the country, with benefit problems the most common cause of hardship, along with the rising cost of living, which is forcing even working people to seek help from food banks.

Gurr said: "These are people who, because of the rise in the cost of living, cannot make their income stretch as far as it did five years ago.

"We've had a 35% rise in food costs over the last five years, and 63% rise in fuel costs over the last five years, but incomes have been static. So even though people are saying we've turned a corner, that the economy is improving, there are still a huge number of people experiencing the rising cost of living, zero-hours contracts and frozen incomes.

"We just weren't seeing working families coming to us for help in 2008. Benefit changes and benefit losses were also something we really weren't seeing back then. Whatever way you slice it there's an assault on people, both people within work and out of work."

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