Food banks shouldn’t exist in this affluent country. But they have done since 2004, after years of bonkers governmental austerity policies, recession fallout and wage freezes. Not to mention the myriad of administrative complications people experience when waiting six weeks for their Universal Credit benefits to kick in. There are so many people in desperate situations, unable to feed themselves a basic meal. Food banks in the UK have become a lifeline to over one million people this past year. ONE MILLION. They provide people with a three-day emergency food package to help in times of crisis. So many factors can tip people from a position of relative stability into one of crisis – for example, a benefits delay, ill health, an unexpectedly high bill to pay on a low income, a wage cut and so on. Many have to choose whether to eat or pay bills.
The Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network says that it provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis in 2015-16, a significant rise on the previous year. Of this number 436,938 went to children. Earlier this year, I watched Ken Loach’s heartbreaking film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ – a sobering and brilliantly filmed account of a hardworking builder in Newcastle denied benefits despite being signed off work with ill health by a doctor. Food banks featured prominently. I haven’t ever been able to get one scene out of my mind, where struggling single mother Hayley arrives at the food bank feeling ashamed, yet rips her way into a cold tin of baked beans with her fingers, shovelling them into her mouth to get rid of hunger pangs. Nobody wants to go to a food bank. It’s humiliating. But it’s a lifeline.
Last weekend I did a two-hour morning shift at Streatham Tesco for the Norwood and Brixton Food Bank. Stocks of food in the banks are currently precariously low, so our volunteer co-ordinator Elizabeth urged us to work as hard as possible to get shoppers to take a shopping list from us, and buy one or two things from the list of needed items. It was an interesting experience in human psychology – and a largely gratifying one. At first glance, people who you wouldn’t expect to be generous were amazingly so, (and vice versa). My rudest moment was when man scurried past with a sarcastic grin on his face, hissing ‘FUCKSAKE’ at me. I get it, some people think that a food bank exists merely so that scroungers can go and help themselves to tins of peaches, but in reality it’s a very well vetted system – you have to get a voucher for the food bank issued from a frontline professional. You can’t just rock up and bundle of load of Fray Bentos pies into your bag whenever you feel like it.
However, my favourite moment during the Tesco shift happened when a birdlike lady with elegant clothes and a small handbag approached the drop-off point and proceeded to slowly extract NINE items from it. Custard. Sardines. Tinned curry. Tinned beans. Tinned peaches. Tinned tuna. Pasta. Tomato pasta sauce. A pack of chocolate mini rolls. Her handbag was like the Tardis. Another guy made my day by producing a couple of Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. That’s got to make someone’s day slightly less shit, I hope? A nice lady chatted to me for a while, bemoaning the fact that food banks are even here at all, and the unfairness of it all. A well-heeled man pushing an expensive baby buggy gave me a filthy, terse look, shooing me away with his hand clad in a creepy burgundy leather glove. Polite, giggly teenagers took shopping lists and enthusiastically turned up at the end of their shop with mountains of pasta and tinned curries. One couple earnestly quizzed me as to what ‘Christmas fare’ meant. I told them to go forth and buy mince pies. They did. And, very humbling: a couple that looked really hard up produced a full carrier bag of shopping at the drop-off point – it was bigger than the shopping that they had bought for themselves. Bless them!
I confess I had a little prior snobbery about the types of food that you are requested to purchase. I used to think: ‘Who wants to eat tinned meat FFS? Why are there no fresh vegetables or fruit?’ Well. There’s a good reason for requested food to be long life. Many people who come to the food bank don’t have cooking facilities or a fridge to store fresh produce. Many have to choose whether to use electricity to heat their home or to cook a meal. You need stuff that has calories and heft, that won’t go off and spoil. That showed me. The shopping list last Saturday:
The volunteer team managed to collect a record amount of food between two supermarkets on the weekend – over six tonnes! It was very worth the effort.
Anyway, this is just to let you know that it’s really EASY to sign up to a two-hour supermarket shift for the Trussel Trust food banks. There weren’t any complicated forms to fill out, it was done in just a few clicks. As we are now in the grip of a grim winter, the need for food in the banks is higher than ever, so please if you are at all tempted, find out more here and give a couple of hours of your time, no strings attached. You dish out shopping lists to the public or load food onto pallets – easy as pie. Plus you get to wear a super tabard like the one below. Thank you!
For more info about food banks and volunteering opportunities, contact The Trussell Trust.