It might be something about the time of year or the sentiment about the Christmas story, Reverend Kim Hurst of the St Andrews Church explains to Newsbook.com.mt.
Reverend Hurst is Chairperson for the Lifeline Foundation foodbank, the crisis response organisation that provides support to people in difficult situations at whatever time throughout the year.
In the last two years, the service has been benefitting from the food collection initiative run by JCI Malta.
Shortly before Christmas, Newsbook.com.mt spoke to JCI Malta about the food collection initiatives they were running in workplaces and schools across Malta to support the Lifeline Foundation foodbank.
JCI Malta told us that the response to their call for food donations and the Reverse Advent Calendar appeal operated by the Lifeline Foundation, brought in considerable amounts of food.
When asked, Reverend Hurst was really thankful for the amount of support the charity has had this Christmas.
‘The idea of supporting a family at Christmas or buying some food to feed a family that is worse off at Christmas is something that is in our conscience, we think about the poor more at Christmas. Maybe the whole Christmas message about a baby that was born in a stable that had no home, whose parents were poor, maybe makes people more about supporting the poor at Christmas,’
She explains that although the perception that Christmas is a difficult time for those less fortunate is genuine, this is an all year round situation.
‘The reality is that we’re feeding families that don’t have anything to eat all year. It doesn’t just happen at Christmas.’, she explains.
Not everyone using foodbanks are poor
The Lifeline Foundation has been running the foodbank since 2015, providing weekly food supplies to those referred to them by organisations like Caritas and social services.
The foodbank provides initial crisis support to between 50 and 80 families all year round, sometimes extending this based on the client’s circumstances.
Beyond the short term circumstances, Reverend Hurst and her team work alongside social workers to provide longer term solutions to help families meet their needs.
In the Maltese context, there is a common misconception that it is only the poor using foodbanks, she explains. In fact, there are a multitude of factors which result in people entering a situation where they need help to feed themselves and their families. There are cases where people have their bank accounts frozen following the death of a partner, they start a new job and have to wait for their wages to come in, or they have to pay for medical treatment and medication.
‘They’ve got money, they can buy food, but they can’t access their bank accounts . Until probate is cleared, you can’t access it because the all the bank accounts are frozen. We have situations where we have people who could normally manage reasonably well on their income but when they need medical treatment, some treatment, some of it is free some drugs are not. If you need that medical to give a quality of life that you can continue to work, people will be referred to us.’
Many people are 1 or 2 payslips away from a foodbank
Reverend Hurst says that on the face of it, Malta is doing well economically and unemployment is low.
Malta is considered one of the top EU member states with positive economic growth. The year 2017, was registered with real GDP growth of 6.7, with a predicted forecast of deceleration to 5.4 this year. A recent Eurostat survey discovered among its findings that Malta came top in terms of citizen’s perceptions of their national economy. Added to this is the fact that the country also registers one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU bloc, 3.8%, when latest figures were presented in August this year.
The extravagance of the Valletta 2018 Capital of Culture event also adds to this impression that the economy is good. But with a booming economy comes increases in the cost of living. Prices go up, rents rise, ‘it means the poor are less able to cope than before.’.
In fact, Reverend Hurst’s points are in line with those recently put forward by Dr Josanne Cutajar, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta.
Addressing a conference coordinated by the Anti-poverty Forum, she explained that over 80,000 people living in Malta are currently living in poverty and that the issue as we understand it, is much bigger than we first thought.
As mentioned above, the crisis forcing people to use a foodbank are not necessarily part of ‘hereditary poverty’ but circumstances can be volatile.
‘Many people are maybe one or two payslips away from a foodbank. If something happens and they lose their job or they’re taken ill and they’re taken into hospital or they lost the accommodation they were living in, not many people in Malta would be able to manage for more than a few weeks.’
We see a steady increase from October
Reverend Hurst clarifies that there it would be incorrect to assume that there is a large influx of people arriving on their doorstep on Christmas Eve to pick up food.
There is indeed a steady increase in the number of referrals to the foodbank from the organisations they work with and this usually begins around October all the way through to the end of January.
Many of the people visiting are families who rely on seasonal work to support them through the warmer months. There are the individuals and families who feel the pressure of Christmas and would not normally seek support from the foodbank. There are also the elderly and frail that struggle to pay for their heating during the Winter and are then also referred for help.
For now, Reverend Hurst is hopeful that the demand for the foodbank will begin to slow down until the period of March and April next year.