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Diary of a food bank manager: 'Now more regularly we hear about whole days without food'

Food bank manager Charlotte White reflects on the cost of living crisis and how her guests are coping.

Food bank volunteers

The food bank is a large operation. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big issue

It’s been an unusual summer at the food bank. Guest numbers have remained high and, with all the noise about the cost-of-living crisis and difficult winter ahead, spirits seem particularly low. 

When life feels so desperate today, how can you get your head around the fact that it will be even worse tomorrow? What more can be cut? What other changes can be made when you’ve already spent the last year making every conceivable compromise to get by?

One guest describes how the portions of cereal she gives her children have become smaller and smaller over the last few months. Were it not for the food bank, there would be no cereal or breakfast at all. 

For months we’ve heard heart-breaking stories of missed meals and reduced portions, but now more regularly we hear about whole days without food.

No wonder there’s a distinct sense of fear in the air – what happens from here?

As well as the distress and anxiety generated from the constant news of inflation, energy prices, cost-of-living crisis, and looming winter ahead, there’s trepidation felt in in everyday moments. For some guests, opening the post is particularly stressful – there’s a dread of unopened letters likely to bring more bills and demands.

At the food bank we’ll do our best to help, but we shouldn’t have to

One guest, Trevor, brings a crumpled official envelope he can’t bear to open himself. He knows that whatever is inside is unlikely to be good news, and with limited phone access, he won’t have the resources to deal with it. A volunteer helps him. Thankfully it’s a request from the council for a bank statement so that his energy rebate request can be verified. His relief Is palpable.

Emails are equally angst-ridden, bringing notice of price rises, bill demands, requests from school. And a knock on the door could well be a bailiff. “I just want to shut out the world, as there’s nothing nice out there,” says one guest.

The sense of fear is most pronounced in first-time food bank users, like Dina, a well-dressed mother who comes to us with her two primary school age children. She needs the food bank after her housing payment was suddenly stopped (she moved house and the paperwork didn’t arrive in time).

She has a part-time office job and receives child maintenance from her ex, but this income is minimal. She was just about getting by until the housing payment stopped. Her income doesn’t cover the bills and rent arrears, let alone buy food or the costs of her children going back to school. She’s terrified – about getting through the immediate crisis but also coping with the winter ahead.

Dina’s story is not unusual. We’re seeing more people plunged into poverty, straight into the deep end.

With the start of school imminent, the end of August is a particularly stressful time of year. But this year, more so than ever. Like Dina, many of our guests tells us of the pressures of needing new clothes, shoes and equipment. We’re fortunate in Wandsworth that the council launched the School Uniform Support Scheme which will alleviate at least some of the financial pressure at this time of year.

Looking ahead, as costs soar, the number of people struggling and the degree of suffering will inevitably increase further unless drastic action is taken. At the food bank we’ll do our best to help, but we shouldn’t have to. More needs to be done in the immediate and deeper, permanent support needs to be built into the system. 

Some argue that we’re living in unprecedented times, with the cost-of-living crisis following a global pandemic. Who could have foreseen this chain of events? 

But the truth is a succession of cruel policies including benefit sanctions, the five-week wait for a first universal credit payment and the benefit cap mean that any safety net has been eroded. Just when a functioning social security safety net could be of use, too many of us are finding it barely exists.

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurityTom 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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