THE NUMBER of people being forced to choose between heating and eating is growing according to volunteers who run foodbanks across the region.

Areas typically thought of as being more affluent do not escape the hardship, with foodbanks serving Richmond and Hambleton experiencing up to 60 per cent more new clients each week since the winter months crept in.

Both banks agree that ‘heating versus eating’ is an issue faced by many families and individuals, and believed that the Christmas period put an extra strain on families already struggling to cope with bills.

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In Darlington, the Salvation Army foodbank voiced concerns that people with pre-paid gas and electricity meters were suffering because they could not afford to heat their homes – and are working to combat the problem by giving out sleeping bags as well as food parcels.

Staff and volunteers at the StoreHouse, at Richmond’s Influence Church, said they had experienced an increase in new clients from around 15 a week to up to 26.

Paige Rutherford, StoreHouse co-ordinator, said: “Christmas can be a great time for families but when you are struggling it can make it really hard.

“We have been incredibly busy in the last month or so, getting between 20 to 26 new people in each week, as opposed to around 15.

“We do usually see this increase around the time the weather starts to get colder because people are using the heating more and want hot meals – so many people have to start making the decision between heating and eating.”

Hambleton Food Share, which supports people across the district including Northallerton, Bedale and Thirsk plus surrounding villages, echoed the concerns that many cannot afford to switch the heating on as well as eat proper meals.

Project co-ordinator Margaret Brice said she expected to see a further surge in people seeking help when the Universal Credit system comes into play in the region.

She said: “Anyone claiming a benefit such as Job Seekers Allowance will now all fit into the Universal Credit system – it takes some time to set up, causing a potential delay in benefit payments, and before they would have housing benefit paid directly for them, but now they will have to manage all their bills themselves.

“We are expecting a spike because of that because it will mean delays in money getting to them, and if people are not used to managing their money then it could cause problems.”

The Hambleton Food Share has seen a 50 per cent rise in numbers since October, with 107 people coming for help in August and September, and 104 in October alone.

In County Durham, the foodbank is supported by the Trussell Trust, a charity which has a network of more than 420 foodbanks, providing three days’ emergency food and support to people in crisis across the UK.

Stuart Hudson, who runs the foodbanks across the country at 27 distribution points, said through the charity he was able to give out winter fuel vouchers through N Power – helping people who were struggling to heat their homes as well as to eat.

He said: “There are three main reasons people come to us in County Durham: low incomes, changes in benefits, and benefit payment delays.

“They are not the only reasons but are the most common.”

Darlington’s Salvation Army is also giving out sleeping bags in a bid to help those who are struggling to stay warm at home.

Colin Bradshaw from the SA said: “We find it is mainly older people who are struggling with the choice between heating and eating – and often it is down to them having the pre-paid gas and electricity meters.

“There is a minimum amount they can put on the meter so sometimes they can’t afford to put anything in. That’s why we have given out the sleeping bags so at least they can be warm.”

Mr Bradshaw said he has seen a rise from around 30 to 40 people per week coming into the foodbank, to 50 to 70 people.

Adrian Curtis, foodbank network director at The Trussell Trust said: “Trussell Trust foodbanks have always reported that they provide more support to people in winter, and we anticipate being exceptionally busy again this year."