Opinion

Food bank users will continue to struggle until benefits are raised to meet the cost of living

Mental health social worker Tom Pollard interviewed people relying on food aid. What he heard was a sobering account of surviving in poverty.

food banks

Demand for food banks started rising long before the pandemic. Image: Unsplash

“Having to go to a food bank? At first, I thought, ‘Well no, you can’t do that’. I’ve heard of people going to food banks, but that can’t be right. I’ve even donated to a food bank before.”

Imagine for a second how you’d feel if you reached the point of needing to turn to a food bank for support – how long you’d hold out against seeking help, what emotions you’d experience on your first visit, and how it might change your view of yourself.

In November and December last year, I visited food banks in London and Kent to interview people about the circumstances that had led them needing food aid and the personal impact this was having on them. In a new report out today, published with the Independent Food Aid Network and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I describe what I heard.

I’ve worked on policy around mental health and social security for over a decade but in the last few years I’ve also been working as a mental health social worker in NHS services. I approached the interviews from these two perspectives – exploring the social and economic factors driving demand for food aid and drawing on my frontline experience to dig deep into the effects on people’s mental health.

For everyone I spoke to, the challenges they were facing were complex and personal, but the underlying reason they needed food aid was simple and universal: their income – primarily from benefits, but in some cases combined with employment – was not enough to make ends meet. This situation had been exacerbated by the recent removal of the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit and the rising cost of living.

We never have enough money. We’re not expecting to be given loads of money to live a lavish lifestyle on benefits…but at least we would be able to provide what is necessary

41-year-old woman living with her partner and four children

The challenge of getting by on an insufficient income was being compounded by debt, poor housing and problems with the benefits system.

I got a letter saying that they had made a mistake with the calculation and that they’d been overpaying my rent. So, they’re saying I owe them £4,000

52-year-old man living alone

Most people I spoke to wanted to work but were struggling to find secure employment, particularly if they had health issues or caring responsibilities.

People seemed trapped by the psychological burden of trying to get by in such difficult circumstances. They simply didn’t have the headspace to deal with anything other than the day-to-day stress and hardship they were facing.

If I’ve got work then we don’t need to use the food bank. But a job could be two weeks, it could be a month, could be anything, you know? That’s how it works – ‘we’ve got two weeks work for you here’, but then that’s it – back to square one again

44-year-old man living with his partner and two children

Despite this strain and adversity, people were showing remarkable resilience and determination to keep going, especially when they had children relying on them to do so.

However, such sustained pressure inevitably takes a psychological toll and many people either spoke explicitly about mental health problems they were experiencing as a consequence of their circumstances, or were showing clear signs of poor mental health.

I’ve cushioned my kids from everything…I think because I’m a mum I just get on with it. I’ve had a lot of things happen in a short amount of time – although it’s really stressful, I haven’t had time to process the stress. You get used to living like that

44-year-old woman, living with her three children

People often described feeling trapped and hopeless, and seeing themselves as a burden on others. These are key warning signs for suicide, which some acknowledged they had considered at times.

Understandably, few people I spoke to felt optimistic about the future. Since these interviews took place at the end of last year, the cost of living has continued to rocket – inflation is set to exceed 7 per cent in April but benefit levels will only increase by 3.1 per cent.

A wide range of policy responses are required to help people living in poverty, but as an absolute minimum the government needs to ensure that benefits levels keep pace with inflation. Otherwise, more and more people will find themselves having to resort to charitable food aid, and will experience the sort of distress described by the people I interviewed.

Tom Pollard a mental health social worker and a freelance researcher and writer. Read The Big Issue’s report on the study here.

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