High Wycombe: Food insecurity hotspot in key counties | poverty

On the face of it, it seems ambiguous: How do wealthy Conservatives voting in High Wycombe find itself the UK’s number one hotspot for hunger and food insecurity?

Nearly one in seven families in Buckinghamshire’s Wycombe district, among the most prosperous in England, went hungry during the latest lockdown, while one in three struggled to get food, according to a study by the University of Sheffield. Its unexpected designation as the nation’s hunger capital has raised eyebrows locally, but few dispute it.

“Those parts of Wycombe that struggle are not really public,” says Lisa, who is a single mom. “But there are definitely a lot of areas around town where people are suffering. All my neighbors are complaining about the cost of living. They all say they are just working to make ends meet.”

She herself has found it difficult to maintain her monthly comprehensive credit payments of £1,300. It gives a snapshot of their spending; After rent and food and energy bills, there’s hardly anything left. “I feel like I’m just one big bill from going too much into the red,” she says.

She was not aware until she spoke to the Guardian that the government was planning to cut universal credit by £20 a week in the autumn. “That’s awful. It’s a lot of money for me – buying food for a week, or five days off the electricity meter in the winter. It’s hard to imagine how I’m going to make it work.”

The Sheffield study generated much controversy in Wycombe and highlighted broader issues that some locally might have thought affected only disadvantaged areas: rampant inequality, the feeling of the city being economically drifting, the rising cost of living, poverty at work and systemic credit problems.

Julia Wassell, a member of the Wycombe Independence Party Council, says that while indicators of deprivation suggest the area is in relatively good shape, there is persistent and hidden poverty, particularly in High Wycombe. “In some parts, the problems are more the urban inner city than the ‘lush backs’ stereotype.”

Wasel recalls delivering food parcels to newly hungry families who are under severe financial stress during the lockdown. Many of them had broken stoves or refrigerators and were unable to replace them. “I’d put a £50 microwave under my arm and send it in with food parcels,” she says.

the One can trust the food bankHeadquartered in a warehouse behind High Wycombe railway station, it has seen first-hand an increase in local hunger over the past 16 months. Before March 2020, food parcels were distributed to 80 families every week. Last March, it helped 300 families, supporting 670 people each week.

One Can Trust chairman Graham Peart, a retired businessman and former member of the Board of Governors, says demand has since fallen to 170 households per week. But he is concerned about a potential explosion of need in the fall, when the leave is fully withdrawn and the £20 Covid bonus for universal credit is suspended.

Peart wants to see more practical support and advice for struggling families, and a more generous global credit system, including an easing of difficult loan repayment terms: “Why do we struggle so far to try to fix the consequences of poverty, when we have to fix poverty itself?”

Matt Knight
Matt Knight owns Hill Cafe, a non-profit organization in High Wycombe that provides discounted meals to low-income people. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

in a Hills CaféCo-founder Matt Knight reflects the city’s staggering disparities: There is a 13-year gap in male life expectancy between Micklefield and the village of Penn and Tyler’s Green, on the A few minutes’ drive to the east, reflecting a well-established wealth split.

These disparities put a lot of pressure on residents to “look like you’re okay” even when you’re struggling, Knight says. The pandemic revealed that many families were just running, even if they were working. When income dried up overnight, the choice was to pay rent or eat regularly.

Tristan Teabing, who helped set up a dining kitchen for struggling families at Buckingham University last fall, says the scale of the hunger at High Wycombe came as a shock: “It was suddenly right in front of you, right at your doorstep: parents who were struggling to feed their children.”

In a relatively wealthy place like Wycombe, it was easy to be oblivious to hunger, he says, until the pandemic exposed the problem. “Some of the benefactors of the Food Kitchen were completely unaware. They believed that poverty was happening in the North East of England or somewhere, but not in their town.”

Before the pandemic, many people never dreamed they would need charitable assistance, says Trevor Snaith, who helps run the Wycombe Community Food Center, which serves 100 people a week with discounted food parcels. He delivered one food parcel to a house in Daws Hill, where the homes are selling for £750,000. “They don’t realize they’re only two checks away from the paycheck until it’s too late.”

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