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Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: We registered our oldest ever guest, born in 1919

A woman over 100 years old has asked for food aid for the first time in her life as cost of living support cannot heal years of austerity.

We started our food bank session in bright spirits on Thursday last week. The sun was shining and for once our stock levels were high, following a concerted effort by volunteers to raise funds over the Bank Holiday weekend, but as the morning continued the brightness disappeared. 

New registration interviews and conversations with guests revealed the bleak, distressing situations many people found themselves in. 

A local family came in, struggling with bills and unable to feed the whole household without the help of the food bank. In addition to needing emergency food, their two teenage children had no beds. They’d outgrown their child-size beds and their parents simply couldn’t afford to replace them.

The eldest child was 15 and sleeping on the floor, despite being midway through exams. (Over the weekend, thanks to some quick work from the local community, we managed to find and deliver some beds.) 

We also registered our eldest guest ever. Born in 1919, she’s lived under twenty prime ministers and now needs food aid for the first time in her life. A weekly delivery is arranged. 

At the other end of the age scale, we register Eva, an 18-year-old who is suddenly homeless after a series of family disputes. She has nothing. She is tearful, exhausted and expresses her terror of spending another night on the streets. Thankfully our onsite Citizens Advice representative can refer Eva for emergency help. 

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And then another sanctions case. Sanctions mean benefits are stopped or reduced due to failure to attend a meeting with an appointed work coach. Pete’s money just stopped out of the blue. 

When he rang the Universal Credit helpline (having had barely any food for four days over the bank holiday weekend) he was told that he had been informed of an appointment by letter. Yet Pete hadn’t received this letter. Trying to challenge a sanction is so difficult with limited phone data and little electricity to charge a phone. And it’s even more difficult when hungry.  

A review of the numbers at the end of the session revealed that we’re currently supporting over 150 households regularly, around 280 people in total. Two years ago we supported fewer than 40 households.  

And all of this in June, historically our quietest time of year, when warm weather means bills are usually lower and children are still at school accessing free school meals, reducing the demand we sometimes see in the school holidays. Seeing numbers rise so steeply at this time of year is alarming. 

The Chancellor’s recently announced support package will give some breathing space to our guests, but the benefits are not immediate and, in the meantime, problems are building up. Debt will accumulate and mental health issues worsen – suffering, deprivation, starvation and destitution will all escalate. 

The poverty caused by twelve years of austerity policies cannot be eradicated by a short-term sticking plaster solution, however well-intentioned.  

Our regular IFAN call with other food banks reveals that we’re all experiencing the same: more people in need, more complex, urgent problems and a general feeling of desperation. It feels like we’re really stuck at the end of the road. Where to go from here?  

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurity. Tom Pollard recently spoke with people at the food bank  for his report on poverty, food banks and mental health in collaboration with IFAN and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. You can access IFAN’s cash first referral leaflets designed to help people facing worries access advice and support here. Take action and write to your MP using IFAN’s template letter here.

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