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Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: Government measures are a start, not a solution

Food bank manager Charlotte White describes the situation as the government announces new measures to support people struggling with the cost of living crisis.

As the chancellor announced some long-awaited cash measures to help with the cost of living crisis, our food bank session was exceptionally challenging. High numbers of people are now expected rather than anticipated, and we can only just about manage to put together food parcels because of a lack of donations. More worrying is the intensity, urgency, and complexity of guests’ situations – every week we see new levels of suffering and deprivation.

From the minute the doors opened at 09:30 there were new guests waiting to be registered and we kept registering until the doors closed at midday. Every story this week, without exception, was complex and heart-breaking. There were many issues relating to benefits: delayed payments; payments unexpectedly stopped or halted due to sanctions; an unexplainable decrease in the amount transferred. And beyond benefits, problems relating to debt, housing, domestic violence, employment and mental health.

While guests may have different income-related reasons for needing the food bank, the same phrases come up again and again: “I don’t have any food at home”; “I have no money left until the end of the month”; “I haven’t eaten”. And all too often these chilling words: “I can’t cope” and “I can’t go on like this”.

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We register two new guests who have recently arrived from Ukraine, Oleksandr and Yulia – both bewildered and exhausted, trying to navigate new systems and set up a new life. Another new guest, Josie, is in tears – she had been woken up that morning by bailiffs knocking on the door. She works 12 hours a week for a major supermarket, but the income barely makes a dent in her debt repayments. At the same time, she’s caring for her adult son with severe health issues; she’s asked for more support on this and has been told she and her son are “on a list”.

Perhaps most heart-breaking of all is guest Marion, a single mother, who says she’s at her lowest point. She lives in emergency accommodation with two toddlers – just one small room for all of them. She was meant to be there for six weeks, but it has now been six months. She has no washing facilities and has to hand-wash everything, including towels, which she can never get dry. The children are regularly ill. There’s a problem with her benefits, so she has barely any money coming in. She hasn’t eaten for over a day, making sure that her children have the little food she can afford to buy. Hearing Marion talk about her daily struggles, it’s hard to believe that we’re sitting here in the 21st century, in an affluent area of a prosperous city in the sixth richest country in the world.

Just as our food bank session is ending, the news comes through that the government is finally introducing some welcome cash first interventions.

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Clive, who has four children and is unable to work due to disability, is enthusiastic about the package. When I speak to him, he’s already researching what it means to his family. “I think it’s a good thing. It should have been done earlier, but it’s going to make a real difference.  What I also like is that we’ll get the money easily…not like the vouchers we were promised before that were so difficult to get. It will give my family some breathing space”

This breathing space is going to be critical for guests. It will also be critical to food banks and other charities, like us, who are stretched to breaking point. Volunteers all over the country are dealing with ever more complex situations while managing the logistics of trying to distribute increasing numbers of food parcels while donation levels decrease. 

Later on, I speak to Marion again. She is more circumspect than Clive: “I suppose it’s a good thing. But to be honest, I can’t think past tomorrow. This feels like a world away”.

The chancellor’s measures won’t be enough to reduce the need for charitable food for the long-term, but they should help make a difference in the months to come. We’re hoping that this is an urgently needed start to tackling the root causes of the poverty driving people needing our help – poverty that has been growing for more than a decade.

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of theIndependent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns fora cash first approach to food insecurity. Tom Pollard recently spoke with people at the food bank forhis 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 supporthere. Take action and write to your MP using IFAN’s template letterhere.

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