Sadly, Alton Foodbank project manager Sian Mills was not surprised that there was an increase in emergency food parcels. Alton is 120% busier than it was before the pandemic and she believes household bills such as energy are the main drivers for the increase in foodbank services.

“When the cost of living payment went out we got quieter and didn't have as many people coming within those few weeks, Sian said.

“But then with the economic crisis, particularly energy, more people need help with their energy bills. We give people gift cards to help them top up their prepayment metres not every food bank does that.”

People are struggling so much that another charity gives out warm blankets and other heating items with volunteers noticing that more people are asking for help with that because it’s too expensive to turn on heating appliances.

Alton is the only Trussell Trust (TTT) foodbank in East Hampshire and Sian added that they are “lucky” because of the support they receive from the trust and from the community.

“We have very generous donors so we get food and money donated and Trussell Trust provide grants to foodbanks if they need to buy food.” Sian added.

TTT is a nationwide collection of food banks that gives emergency food and support to people who are struggling to make ends meet or are in poverty.

The national charity operates almost 1,700 distribution centres, where those referred can receive nutritious emergency food.

In Waverley, 2,754 emergency food parcels were handed out to people in need across its four locations in the year to March. However, this was down from 3,527 the year before and of these parcels 1,195 were delivered to support vulnerable children.

From 2019 to 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic, just 1,651 were handed out.

In comparison, 2,781 emergency food parcels were handed out to people in need at TTT’s only location in East Hampshire in the year to March – up slightly from 2,671 the year before. The highest since records began in 2017 to 2018 and like Waverley, 1,282 of these parcels were delivered to support vulnerable children.

Prior to the pandemic, 1,686 were handed out in East Hampshire from 2019 to 2020.

Across the UK, the number of emergency food parcels provided has nearly doubled in five years, topping 3.1 million in 2023-24.

An emergency food parcel provides food for three or seven days. The figures cover food parcels handed out by the Trussell Trust, but other organisations may also be providing support.

TTT has called on political parties to commit to tackling the problem, urging them to back a "supportive social security system" and provide better support for parents, carers and people with disabilities who can face increased living costs.

Chief executive Emma Revie said: "It’s 2024 and we’re facing historically high levels of food bank need. As a society, we cannot allow this to continue. We must not let food banks become the new norm.

"As we approach the next general election, we urgently need all political leaders to set out how they will build a future where no one needs a food bank to survive.

"Voters want to see a change and we need cross-government action at all levels to deliver it."

The Charities Aid Foundation said people donated £973 million to food banks in 2023, up from £635 million during the previous year.

Senior policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Iain Porter said: "This is not what an economy returning to full health looks like. The latest record-breaking emergency food parcel figures show the painful economic reality facing families with the least."

Mr Porter urged the Government to introduce an "essentials guarantee" to ensure "everyone has a protected minimum amount of support to afford the essentials.”

The Government said its cost-of-living support package had prevented 1.3 million people from falling into poverty in 2022 to 2023.

It reiterated it had uprated benefits, raised the state pension and was "raising the National Living Wage, cutting taxes and driving down inflation while investing billions through our Back to Work Plan".

Sian added: “Foodbanks are struggling with demand, the financial pressures, and it's becoming too much and I think it can depend on where your foodbank is.

“In Alton, we're very fortunate and it's relatively affluent. But there are foodbanks that are in less affluent areas where everybody is struggling.”

During peak times around Christmas and New Year, the volunteers believe that people on limited income use what little money they have to buy presents for loved ones and that means they have to use foodbank services to cover food and other necessities.

When it comes to food parcels for vulnerable children, Sian said there isn’t any classification in the system.

Sian said: “In a foodbank when a voucher is created on the database various questions are asked. How many adults are in the household? Are any of the adults carers for children that are in the household? 

“It’s also about whether the adults are earning, on benefits or have mental health problems and other other health problems.”

The Herald also spoke to project manager Harriet Laynon from TTT Farnham Foodbank and financial adviser David McNeigh from Frontline Money Advice.

According to data from Farnham Foodbank which compares the number of food parcels given out per year. The year prior to the pandemic was classed as a ‘normal year’ with only 1,476 food parcels given out. However, it increased to 2,373 in 2021 and then shot up again to 2,764 in 2023.

Harriet said: “At the end of 2021 the cost of living crisis was kicking in, and that's reflected in 2022 and 2023. The numbers are quite significant and it has impacted families and individuals and they are struggling to make ends meet.”

“The demand is still high and it doesn’t seem to be decreasing. Some people are with us for weeks until they manage to get their finances in order or their situation in order. 

“Then we have new people coming in as well, some walk in and we always provide them with a food parcel, and then we get them to come next time through one of our referral agencies.”

David added: “I think there's just less money in the system to go around, things are more expensive and we understand the pressures on the nation's finances. 

“We're seeing more clients coming in and still seeing people who are recovering from bad situations, but a high proportion are people who just struggle to manage month on month. Things take longer to process and the need extends and it means month on month they fall behind more financially, so their debt grows.”

Debt was cited as the highest reason for people requiring a food parcel, with low income not being able to cover the essentials as the second highest.

Harriet added that while the foodbank meets immediate need for food, the team tries to refer people to Frontline or its other support services. To help address underlying issues that are bringing them to the foodbank so they won’t need to use them again in the future. 

One day there may not be a need for foodbanks, but it looks like that is a long way off.

Files from Andrew Dowdeswell.