Feeding a baby on benefits

What would you do if you and your partner were young, jobless, struggling to buy enough food and had a baby with allergies? You could end up shouting at each other – a lot. That’s what happened to John and Marie (not their real names), a couple in their early 20s who came to the Trussell Trust centre last week for a supply of emergency food. They brought their subdued little girl of 15 months, who sat in her pram and was unsettled until given some baby rice.

Their baby is tiny – she  looks no more than nine or 10 months. She’s come to the attention of  local authority child protection staff, who are concerned that she’s already being emotionally damaged by her parents’ constant arguments.

Marie is from the Philippines and is trying to sort out her UK immigration papers. The fee for preparing her papers was £578. She doesn’t receive any public funds, so John is trying to pay the immigration fee, while attempting to spread the £113 Employment Support Allowance (ESA) he receives once a fortnight between the three of them.  John says he had to survive for 16 months without any benefits before he started getting ESA. Marie is still awaiting the immigration decision.

They’re used to making a little money go a long way when it comes to food: John says: ‘We were shopping at Morrison’s, and we can make a meal for under £5. We mostly buy things like tins of spaghetti and ravioli. But the real shock was finding out that she (the baby) had allergies. So we had to change our food. But social services is saying that a family of three could survive on £51 a week.’ Although their rent is paid by a neighbouring local authority, the benefit money has to stretch to cover council tax, electricity and travel, as well as food. John is bitter about the way they have to live. ‘They are making all these cuts, but does Mr Cameron see the other side of it? It’s very difficult for people who are applying for immigration.’

They want to know if they can access a centre closer to their flat next time, as affording travel is a big problem. Alan, who manages the foodbanks in the borough, says: ‘We’ve had people come here who’ve had to walk huge distances to collect the food, and walk huge distances back.’

He gently explains to the couple that the supply of food they’re being given is meant to be an emergency response to an immediate crisis rather than an ongoing solution. You can tell he hates having to say this to people who are clearly going to find it almost impossible to improve their circumstances in the near future. But he remains as positive as he can, saying: ‘We are a charity run by churches in the borough. A lot of people are being put in difficult positions, and our job is to do what we can to help.’

Note: The first post published on 22 September says Tim the ex-scaffolder cycles about 16 miles to the hospital and back for blood and eyesight tests. The round trip is 10/11 miles.

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