Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: People don't have enough for essentials, so what chance for hope?

Food bank manager Charlotte White explains why she's backing the campaign for an essentials guarantee.

Experts discuss the essentials guarantee programme in parliament, hoping the proposals will give vulnerable people enough support to pay their bills. Image: Charlotte White

Philip rings the food bank phone on a Saturday evening. He’s received a letter from his Housing Association informing him that the service charge on his flat will be going up by £10 a week. It’s a sudden and significant increase, on top of food prices going up by nearly 20 per cent since last year, that triggers a deluge of worry and concern. 

He’s already skipping meals and has gone through most of the winter without putting the heating on as his employment and support allowance (ESA) just isn’t enough to cover food, gas and electric. Where will this additional money come from? And what will happen if he can’t pay? Will he be evicted? Could he end up homeless? 

Digging deeper, it turns out that this increase is due to installation of fire equipment in the small communal area outside his flat. After numerous phone calls, hours waiting on hold, emails and even a trip to the town hall, it transpires that the money will be covered by his housing benefit. A huge relief to Philip but at the same time, frustration that this wasn’t clear at the beginning. One out of context letter caused sleepless nights, hours of wasted time and a high degree of anxiety. As Philip says: “I’m OK, I can deal with this and I had help. But what if I didn’t? This could have tipped me over the edge.”

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Housing issues are rife at the moment. Many food bank guests report having built up significant rent arrears over the tough winter months. Others sit on waiting lists for suitable housing, families crammed into flats that are too small, people with disabilities living in high-rises with lifts that never seem to work.

A particularly disturbing trend that keeps cropping up in conversation, is that of private landlords increasing rent to unaffordable levels. So many first-time food bank users tell a similar story – their landlord puts the rent up, for a while they try to cope by cutting back on things, often going into debt. Going to the food bank is the last resort, often after months of struggle, when all other options have been exhausted.

Mal, a new guest, is facing just these circumstances. Until a few months ago he had secure work in a reasonably well-paid job. He then lost his job unexpectedly and, soon after, his landlord increased his rent by 30 per cent. He can’t afford to pay and now his landlord is threatening to evict him.

Like Philip, Mal isn’t sleeping. He says he knows he needs to “get himself together” but, tired and hungry, he doesn’t know where to start.



Considering these worrying patterns, it’s no wonder that guest numbers at food banks everywhere are higher than ever. Despite the warmer weather (which in the past heralded a drop in demand), every week more and more food parcels are needed.

In March, we handed out 560 food parcels at Earlsfield Foodbank. Looking back at last March, we gave out 366. At that time we believed we’d reached rock bottom as the figures for March 2021 were 231. Our numbers are typical of other independent food banks, as regular calls with Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) members reveal.

And behind every number is a heart-breaking story of suffering, deprivation, and fear. The need for solutions is more pressing than ever. This is a crisis, a “critical incident” that needs to be declared and acted upon.

One proposed solution is the “essentials guarantee”, developed by the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  It’s a call on the government to ensure that the universal credit basic rate is set to at least £120 a week to close the gap between the cost of “essential items” and the current basic rate.

This proposal was launched last month and has widespread support. The essentials guarantees report makes powerful reading and includes many quotes from Pushed to the Edge: Poverty, Food banks and Mental Health and interviews that took back at the Earlsfield Foodbank.

I attended a parliamentary event on behalf of the Independent Food Aid network (IFAN) and it was encouraging to see that there was broad consensus that something should be done. But like IFAN, I feel strongly that we need to be talking now about a living income as well. Yes, an essential guarantee is desperately needed but let’s be sure to not stop there.

As my colleague Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of IFAN, says: “We all need to be able to count on at least a social security safety net that ensures everyone can afford the basics as well as, more broadly, a societal system that allows us all a decent standard of living whether we’re working or not.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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