Until six months ago Richard Francis had never accepted charity. The 57-year-old from Surbiton in Greater London has a degenerative spinal disease and several other conditions that make him unable to work.
But he and his wife Sarah had always managed to scrape by on his mobility benefits and her nurse’s salary. Until last December.
“It was just before Christmas and there was nothing in the cupboard,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I’m good at making meals out of very little – I can make a meal out of thin air virtually now – but there weren’t any ingredients.”
Along with more than a million other people in Britain last year, Francis swallowed his pride and went to a food bank. His experience is being echoed by thousands of disabled people who now have to turn to charity to eat.
Major research into food insecurity published on Thursday by Oxford University and the Trussell Trust shows that half of all households referred to food banks include a disabled member. One in three include someone with a mental health condition.
“When you have nothing, sometimes you have to grab the bull by the horns and ask for help, which we don’t like to do,” Francis said of the experience. “My wife really didn’t want me to but I said ‘needs must’ and I went. I’d rather go to work but I can’t.”
As well as the degenerative spine disease, Francis has epilepsy and brittle asthma that has twice left him in intensive care. He walks with a stick and says he misses the variety of jobs he used to do, including working in a mortuary, being a security chauffeur, and being a painter-decorator.
His story illustrates how stagnating public sector wages and welfare cuts have pushed many families with disabled members into poverty. And like many, Francis is angry at the cuts that have brought them here.
“I’m furious," he said. "When I look at Sarah going to work as a nurse and she didn’t even get a 1% pay rise. In effect her pay is down 17% because of the cost of living going up. Yeah, I’m pretty cross.”
He added: “It’s demeaning having to go to charity. They were very kind and they did help but I’d rather give not take.”
When he married Sarah five years ago he lost a secure tenured council flat because he was no longer eligible for it. Now they privately rent a one-bedroom flat and find it difficult to find enough money for food, let alone a life.
“When you’re paying £1,100 for a one-bedroom flat without bills and council tax and only one wage it can become really tight. I had a motability car but we can’t afford it any more because we can’t afford the petrol. We haven’t been out for two years. I was a social animal and a people person but it’s too expensive.”
Last year Trussell Trust food banks gave out 1.2 million emergency parcels to people who did not have enough at home to feed themselves.
In this latest research, academics working with the charity have found that problems with benefits, particularly those for disabled people, were a driving factor in many cases. Nearly 2 in 5 people interviewed were awaiting a benefit payment. A third of those with welfare delays were waiting for the employment support allowance, a disability benefit.
The study claims to be the single biggest nationwide investigation into food bank use to date, involving analysis of more than 400 households referred to food banks.
David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said: “This pioneering research confirms to us what those volunteers have been telling us: Every day they are meeting people trying to cope with low, insecure incomes and rising prices that mean even the smallest unexpected expense can leave them destitute and hungry – be that an unexpected bill, bereavement or the loss of income caused by benefit delay.
“Particularly concerning are the very high numbers of disabled people or people with mental health problems needing food banks.
“These findings reaffirm how vital the work of food banks and generosity of donors is, but are also a clear challenge to the new government to do more to stop people ending up in crisis in the first place.”
More than three-quarters of those interviewed by academics were classed as “severely food insecure”, meaning they had gone without meals, sometimes for days at a time. Half of the people in the study could not afford heating or toiletries.
Around half of those receiving emergency food aid reported that their incomes were unsteady and varied week-to-week. Two-thirds had been hit by a recent "income shock" and most had experienced sharp rises in housing costs or food expenses.
Sociologist Dr Rachel Loopstra, the lead author of the report, said: “The stories emerging from food banks across the country have surprised and shocked many people but until now, we have not been able to put them in a numerical context. Our survey data show how people using food banks are unable to ensure they always have enough food to eat because their incomes are too low and too insecure.
“We observed how commonly income or expenditure shocks, whether arising from a delay in receiving a benefit payment, from a benefit sanction, or from rising energy costs, tipped households into food bank use. But these shocks, and resulting food bank usage, occur among people who live with extremely low incomes and chronic food insecurity, where meeting basic needs is an ongoing struggle.
“The severity and chronicity of food insecurity and other forms of destitution we observed amongst people using food banks are serious public health concerns.”
The shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “This report builds on previous research directly linking increased use of food banks with the Conservative’s punitive sanctions regime.
“It is further evidence of the total failure of the Tory austerity project, which as this data shows is disproportionately punishing people with mental health conditions and disabilities.
“The fact that 4 out of 5 food bank users go hungry over a year cannot be allowed to continue.”
The government points out that disability benefits have been protected from the benefit freeze and that around 2.5% of GDP is spent every year supporting people with disabilities and health conditions.
A government spokesperson said: “We’re helping millions of households meet the everyday cost of living and keep more of what they earn while also spending over £90bn a year in extra support for those who need it. Employment is the best route out of poverty, and with record numbers of people – including disabled people – now in work, we’ve made great progress.
“But we want to go even further to help ordinary families. That’s why we’ve doubled free childcare, introduced Universal Credit and increased the National Living Wage and tax free Personal Allowance to make sure it always pays to be in work.”