CHRISTMAS is perhaps the hardest time of year to be hungry in the UK. Every year, there is a surge of people who want food parcels throughout the festive season.
Last year, the Trussell Trust (which runs the UK’s largest network) said that it gave out 130,000 food parcels in December alone. A few weeks ago, I visited Brixton and West Norwood foodbank, based in St Luke’s, West Norwood, to find out what it was like to be unable to make ends meet at this time of yea
The large and slightly shabby church did not seem especially frenetic. Volunteers wearing distinctive dark-green tabards welcomed clients, took details, and made cups of tea or coffee. Behind a roughly constructed wall of felt display-boards, more volunteers were making up food parcels — extracting tins from mountains of non-perishable food stacked high on portable metal shelves. It all seemed calm.
But Elizabeth Maytom, who runs the foodbank, said that, in each of the four years it has existed, the amount of food distributed around Christmas has soared. “We deal with something in the region of 100 clients on the day. They will be queuing up outside. It’s mad. It’s full-on mad.
“There’s such expectation of people wanting to give everything to their family, and they feel they are letting their children down,” she explained.
But this is desperation, not aspiration. As the temperature drops, many of the foodbank’s clients are forced to choose between spending their limited cash on heating or eating. Institutions that usually help shore up against hunger — with school meals, or lunch clubs for the elderly — shut down around Christmas, pushing some of the poorest people in the neighbourhood into crisis.
THE first customer I spoke to did not want to give her real name, and asked that I refer to her as Angel instead. She was a 41-year-old black woman, wearing a glittery purple woolly hat and a fleece-lined coat. She had arrived at the foodbank with a friend.
A problem with claiming benefits had prompted her visit, she said. Lost paperwork, including a birth certificate, had led the Jobcentre to cut off some of her welfare payments, including child benefit and child tax credit.
“They wrote to me and said there’s nothing they can do, after an appeal; so they stopped all the money. They left me with £24 to live on,” she said, indignantly. It worked out at £3.42 each day to provide for her, her young baby, and four other school-age children.
“I’m in debt now. Everywhere I go I beg or borrow,” Angel said. Her plight had begun while she was pregnant with her youngest child. She had discovered that her partner had previously been in an Islamic marriage, and had other children.
The shock plunged her into depression: “You become lazy, lackadaisical, you become depressed. It’s the mind — you feel sick in yourself.” The lethargy meant that she failed to write a letter at the correct time, so she lost her benefits. “It’s a bit of my fault as well,” she conceded. At the time we spoke, she had been living on £24 a week for two months.
She hit rock bottom when her son opened the fridge, saw the lack of food, and asked her: “Mum, are we poor now?”
“I got to the lowest,” Angel said. “You want to be there for them, you want to help them. But, deep down, you become more or less lonely in yourselves. Heartbroken, you remember things, and it comes to you, especially in the night. You feel bad.”
With one week’s cash, Angel bought 20 packets of cereal from Iceland and fed her family on it, morning and night. But even that was now exhausted, and her house was empty, she said; hence her arrival at St Luke’s with a voucher for a food parcel.
“I’m just desperate now to get stuff for this week, because it’s Christmas and I want to buy stocking stuff, and feel relaxed and happy for Christmas.” Her children had been asking her when they would put up a Christmas tree. But this year there would be no tree.
Her four-year-old daughter had to wear her PE shoes, which had holes in them, because Angel couldn’t afford to buy a new pair. At this, for the first time since we began speaking, she began to cry.
“It’s sad, that’s the only thing that break me. A lot of people don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, without shoes.” Shortly afterwards, a foodbank volunteer brought over several shopping bags, bulging with food.
EVERYONE who comes to the foodbank with a voucher — which are given out by a number of local charities, GPs, or even Jobcentres — is given three days’ worth of non-perishable food. Ms Maytom said that the foodbank tried to spice up the festive parcels with fresh fruit, vegetables, and other items to approximate a Christmas dinner.
“You get your Brussels sprouts, your carrots, your potatoes,” she said. “The closest we can do [to turkey] is chicken in a white sauce.” Stuffing, chocolates, mince pies, and other seasonal goodies are also loaded into the parcels. At West Norwood and Brixton foodbank, the volunteers hold a special Christmas Eve session, where they hand out large hampers as well as sweets and Christmas books or magazines.
The volunteers said that they tried to keep spirits high, and to send the customers away feeling better — “just trying to bring some light into what can be a very dark period,” Ms Maytom said.
MELANIE CLARKE, a 31-year-old was standing in a dark coat with a pram, waiting for her food parcel in another corner of St Luke’s. She had been referred to the foodbank by a charity that supports victims of domestic abuse.
While she was grateful for the food she was about to be given, her greatest need had come several years earlier, when she finally left her partner after 15 years of violence and intimidation. “I wish I knew about [the foodbank] when things were worse. When I was pregnant [with her son], I didn’t have anything. I needed food to feed the kids, so I literally went days with nothing to eat.”
When she was five months pregnant, her partner had tried to strangle her. Ms Clarke went to the police. Later, her evidence in court helped convict him. But she lost her job running an after-school club in Croydon, because the strain and depression of coping with her abusive ex-partner had affected her work.
“When they sacked me, that’s when everything started to go downhill,” she said. “So I used to walk up and down selling things I could find at home, trying to get some money to get us through — electric, gas, that night’s dinner.
“I was constantly waiting for months for my benefits. I didn’t know about the foodbank back then. It would have been amazing, it really would.”
Even though she is now back on her feet, with a part-time job as a personal assistant, Ms Clarke said she was still finding it difficult to make ends meet, her now two-year-old son, and two older children.
“The kids always want something, always need something: shoes, coats. . . [Her eldest] wanted me to buy things — you know they want the latest stuff — but he knew he couldn’t have it.” Even at the lowest point, Ms Clarke said that she worked hard to hide the situation from her children. “I acted like everything was fine, although really I was constantly panicking where the next meal was coming from.”
She had been struck by the friendly professionalism of the foodbank. Believing them to be a last resort for the unemployed and the desperate, she had held back from asking for help, because she at least had a part-time job. “I didn’t want to seem greedy or anything.”
But, instead of picking from a few tins piled on a table, she had sat down with a volunteer and drawn up a list of the items she needed the most, which were now in the process of being put together behind the felt display-boards. “It’s nice they sit with you, and see what things you are in need of. I didn’t realise it worked like that.”
THE human touch is clear, from the personalised food parcels to the mugs of steaming tea offered to clients as they wait. One of the volunteers, David Wilson, told me that it was meeting new people that was the highlight of his time at St Luke’s.
Grey-haired and softly spoken, he had begun in the ad hoc “warehouse”, putting food parcels together, but then soon moved on to the meet-and-greet team. “That’s where I feel like I fit in. I like talking to people and stuff,” he said. The suffering and desperation of those who came through the church’s doors broke his heart. “I said to my wife: ‘I want to bring everyone home.’”
But, over time, Mr Wilson said that he had built friendships with many of the “nice and interesting” people he met.
LIKE 43 per cent of all foodbank users, Daniel Wojtasztzyk had come to St Luke’s because of problems with his benefits. A 35-year-old Polish carpenter, he had been unable to work since his left leg was shattered in a motorbike crash in January.
Dressed in a tracksuit, and carefully resting his leg, now encased in a metal frame to help the bone regrow, Mr Wojtasztzyk explained how he had been cut off from Government support because he was not British.
“It’s a new regulation against European immigrants,” he said. “I cannot be on Jobseekers [allowance] because they say I do not have a general prospect of work. Employment support allowance is an issue around residency and stuff like that. I’m getting legal advice right now, but it’s an ongoing process.”
Two weeks earlier, he had had his latest bone transplant, and was wearing one shoe with a taller heel while his leg gradually repaired itself. A total recovery could take up to nine months, or even as long as three years, he said.
He was unable to take any office jobs, because he could not sit still for more than a few hours before the pain in his leg became unbearable. And despite having a Level Three Interior Design diploma, he could not find any design or carpentry work that he could do from home.
“I looked today in the fridge. There’s some cabbage, tomatoes, some juice, but not too much,” Mr Wojtasztzyk said. Selling his motorbike had covered most of his household bills, but for food he had been reliant on meals sent in the post from Poland by his mother.
I asked him if he felt let down by the welfare system. “Of course I feel angry,” he said, but with resignation. “What was the point getting all the work registration, dealing with the Home Office, getting a National Insurance number, paying all the taxes, P45, P60s? I got everything: letters from employers, everything they ask. . . But they create a system which eliminates people.”
I enquire if Christmas would be a particularly difficult time. No, he says, because it doesn’t change anything. His struggle was on a “daily basis”: trying to rebuild the muscle in his leg, going to physiotherapy, visiting the Jobcentre on crutches, attempting to sort out his benefits.
As the bags of food arrived, Mr Wojtasztzyk said he expected he could stretch out the three days of supplies to last him a week, especially if he did not move around much, and conserved calories. As he left, I said that I hoped his life would turn around soon.
“That’s what’s left,” he replied. “Only hope.”
The Winchester experience
In Winchester, the word “foodbank” has been deliberately avoided, writes Geoff Meads. The need was regarded from the very beginning as more than just physical sustenance. Ten years on from its inception,the Basics Bank in Winchester is concern as much about its identity as it is about having enough provision for its clients.
As a Christian charity, the project is largely supported by churches, but was assisted in its launch by Winchester City Council and other local organisations. As well as food, the Basics Bank offers clothing, heating assistance, signposting, and, where possible, church links. The aim has always been to prioritise relational and spiritual well-being as much as the physical need.
The original intention was for it to be a one-off port of call for people leaving prison, the women’s refuge, the night shelter, and the drugs clinic. In 2004/05 there were about 350 bank clients, drawn mostly from these sources. Now there are ten times that number of people being referred annually.
Should its success, as measured by volume of callers, be celebrated by the churches? Or should the ever-growing volume of recipients and donors be a matter for concern, as indicators not of the Big Society, but as a reversion to traditional paternalism?
Despite the increase in food banks — from three to 33 across Hampshire, in ten years — the view shared by the local council and the charities is that they should not become institutionalised (by, for example, acquiring larger premises), but continue to seek to become redundant.
Of course, for the middle-aged man suddenly destitute after losing his job, wife, and mortgage in quick succession; or the teenager too old to be in care but too young to cope independently; or even the low-wage family for whom the loss of housing benefits and tax credits seems too much to bear, none of this matters.
I have given many talks for the Basics Bank, often at school assemblies. Ten years ago, it was usually safe to assume that the audience did not have direct experience of the bank. This is no longer the case.
Geoff Meads is a trustee of the Basics Bank, Winchester.