Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: 'MPs' comments do not relate in any way to what we see'

Food bank users are actively looking for food to cook and struggle with low pay, no matter what MPs say, writes Charlotte White.

A volunteer at Earlsfield food bank sorts fresh food for guests to cook

A volunteer at Earlsfield food bank sorts fresh food for guests to cook. Image: Charlotte White

It’s been a frustrating week. Once more, we’ve had to cut items from the product list we offer guests. As guest numbers continue to go up and donation levels go down, we just can’t afford to provide people with the same amount of food as before.

More frustration was felt on hearing the ill-informed comments by MPs Lee Anderson and Rachel Maclean. These comments were galling for several reasons. Firstly, they do not relate in any way to what we see at the food bank. And secondly, comments like these propagate the dangerous myth that people need food banks because of mismanagement of their own situation, rather than a failing, broken system.

Lee Anderson suggested that people who use food banks do not know how to cook or manage their finances properly. In our experience this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many guests want to cook and most have some ability and knowledge. When our food bank team discussed which items to cut this week, one item we unanimously agreed we need to keep was cooking oil. It’s one of our most sought-after items, and this is because people are cooking. One guest, Jan, makes a vegetable curry every week from the fresh vegetables given out. Another guest, Nazish, often rings me before the Thursday session, to ask if anyone has happened to donate any herbs and spices.

Of course, not all guests cook, but the barrier is more likely to be inability to afford the gas or electric rather than a lack of desire or knowledge. Since the cost-of-living crisis has accelerated, items like instant noodles (which only require a kettle) or no-cook items like corned beef and spam have become much more popular. As guest Heidi says “I have £1 left on the electric for the rest of the week. I need this to charge my girls’ tablets so they can do their school homework, I can’t put the oven on as well” (The tablets are loaned to the family by the school).

Days after Lee Anderson’s comments, MP Rachel Maclean said families could “protect” themselves from the cost-of-living crisis by taking on more work.

One of the most alarming trends we’ve seen over the last few months has been the number of working people needing food bank support. At our food bank we have delivery drivers, support workers, carers, retail workers etc to name a few. In fact, we’ve even changed our system so that people who work can order pre-packed bags and avoid the queue. We did this after a DHL driver was almost penalised for a late delivery because of a very long food bank queue that day.

Working people need the food bank as their wages are too low or their hours uncertain. Recently, a warehouse packer guest had all his promised hours cancelled for an entire week. Supplies hadn’t reached the warehouse in time so there was nothing to pack. For him and many others, the choice of “taking on more work” simply isn’t there. The prevalence of zero-hours contracts means that it’s difficult for guests to know what income will be coming in every week, let alone plan and budget.

So, for the moment, forget budgeting, food education and changing work hours. We are at crisis point. People are struggling like never before; lives are breaking down. There is only one conversation that needs to be had regarding food banks and that’s how to give the growing number of people in poverty adequate money. Uprate benefits in line with inflation, ensure people don’t starve – that’s what we ask of MPs.

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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