Food bank use falls in County Durham - but it doesn't mean the problems have gone away
Fewer people in County Durham are using food banks than they were last year, despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Job losses, wage cuts and the loss of school meal provision caused by closed classrooms have seen many families across the region struggling to make ends meet.
But official figures suggest the need for packages from the formal food bank network may have fallen due to alternative measures put in place since March 2021.
“Food bank use has increased recently, but use was actually higher this time last year (2020) than this year (2021),” said Andy Palmer, head of transformation at Durham County Council.
“The reason for that is because of the additional support that is available to people through the community, through community groups, who have really rallied through the pandemic to provide food parcels for people and an alternative source of welfare assistance.
“Food banks stocks are very high and the response from the public has been very good.”
Palmer was speaking at a meeting of the county council’s Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Management Board, which was held by videolink and broadcast via YouTube.
However, while food bank use may have defied expectations, the number of people seeking benefits has continued to increase.
According to a report for councillors, there are currently 10,000 more 16-64-year-olds claiming employment benefits than there were in September 2019, with most signing up for assistance between March and May 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The young are also increasingly feeling the strain, with 120 out of 130 new claimants in September aged 16 – 24.
Overall youth unemployment in County Durham currently has risen to almost 10%, although this is slightly lower than the 11 per cent across the wider North East.
Applications for Council Tax Reduction were four times their normal level in March 2020 and, despite a subsequent fall, have since started to rise again in recent months.
Palmer added: “What we’ve seen, unsurprisingly, is a steady increase in claims.
“Things like council tax benefit peaked in May, following the first shock of the pandemic, then eased off over the summer, but numbers are climbing again, although we’re not quite at the peak of May.”