Stephen, who came into our London food bank last week, is a single man of 55, but has the vulnerable air of a child. He shared a house with his mum until her death four years ago. He obviously misses her greatly. Although he lives in the next borough, his housing association sent him here – presumably because ours is the only food bank that was open “nearby” that day. The need for emergency food is so great in our borough that we have 6/7 food banks – each open on a different day of the week. Our food bank is one of nearly 400 that make up the Trussell Trust‘s UK food bank network.
He told me he had a visit from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) the previous day. They were, he said, “trying to get me on Employment Support Allowance (ESA)”, because of his health problems. Stephen is a diabetic, and was diagnosed four years ago. He said he’s currently surviving on £84 a month disability living allowance, and doesn’t receive jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), because he’s not deemed fit for work.
The process of getting ESA is likely to take some time. Delays to assessment and disputes are common, and seem to lie behind most of the visits to this food bank.
How does he cope on £84 a month? According to Stephen the money goes on rent, electricity (£4) and £40 for food. What does he buy with the £10 a week he has to spend on food? He told me he heads down to the local shop, where he buys five microwavable dinners for £1 each. He spends £3 a week feeding his beloved cat. Stephen has a bowl of cornflakes with some milk for breakfast and saves his microwavable meal for the evening. He said he “doesn’t need two main meals a day”. I’m left speechless.
Disability campaigner Sue Marsh said in a recent letter to the Evening Standard that “just 10 per cent of the sick and disabled people referred to the Government’s work programme are ‘helped’ into work”. She argues that the hardest to help are “parked”, while “huge corporations” cherry pick the easiest cases to ensure they get paid. I’m not confident about Stephen’s prospects in this new world as he struggles towards the bus stop with his bags of food.