Christmas, a Birth, and a Problematic Foodbank Report

Hayley, whose baby is due next week, came to this Greenwich foodbank for help.
Hayley, whose baby is due next week, came to this Greenwich foodbank for help.

I apologise in advance for the length of this post. There’s a lot to say. Hayley is a 31-year-old mother of two and is heavily pregnant. She came to the food bank at the weekend with her partner and her youngest child of nine. Her baby is due next week, but her family is not in a celebratory mood. This young family’s cupboards are empty. It’s the first time in their lives they’ve ever had to ask for a food bank voucher.

They’ve hit a full-blown crisis. Hayley is a domiciliary care worker. Because she normally gives birth prematurely at 27 weeks, she went onto statutory sick pay three months ago. She was naturally wary given her earlier pregnancies, and by that stage she also couldn’t do the hoisting and lifting that her job requires. Moving onto sick pay reduced her income from £1,000 a month to £300. She then went onto maternity benefit in November, and has recently applied through the council for housing benefit. This application has been turned down. She recently applied to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for child tax credit, and a payment of £30 a week was awarded two weeks ago.

Her anxious-looking partner took their child off for a while so that I could talk to Hayley. Her partner works as as driving instructor. He’s self-employed, and business has been very slow lately. He has no clients booked in over the Christmas holidays, but he’s still expected to make payments to the franchise he belongs to. The most daunting problem they face as they wait for the new baby to arrive is their housing situation.’We’ve got to pay £140 a week rent to London and Quadrant Housing Association. My partner is self-employed, but he has no clients and no work over the Christmas period. But we still have to pay his franchise fees for the business. The tax credit people have told me to ring them when I’ve had the baby. After the baby’s born they’ve said they’ll get me to fill in another form. London and Quadrant have given me the food bank voucher, but they still ring me every week for the rent.’ How do those calls make her feel? ‘It makes me feel embarrassed and upset.’

She contacted her children’s schools – her eldest is 13 and at secondary school – to see if they were entitled to free school meals. ‘I put in for free school dinners and they said I wasn’t entitled. That was two weeks ago. At my daughter’s (secondary) school the head then said they would give her school dinners free for a little while.’ Her nine year old’s primary school told her that her son wouldn’t be able to get free meals.

Hayley believes that what’s making their situation so difficult is an assumption by HMRC that their income in this financial year is going to be much higher that the reality that is unfolding. Hayley is going to spend at least half of this financial year on sick pay or maternity pay, and her partner’s income as a self-employed person has plummeted recently. ‘HMRC is making assumptions about our yearly income that are not accurate.’

The couple haven’t been able to buy any Christmas presents this year, and the outlook for this lovely family as the holidays approach and the new baby is born is grim indeed. The food bank was able to help with the standard package of three days’ supply of non-perishable food including canned staples. But there were no nappies, wipes or baby-related material in stock that day. We were not able to provide any fresh food either, as the Trussell Trust food bank network is not set up to do this.

The day before I interviewed Hayley, I talked to the manager of the Trussell Trust foodbanks in Greenwich Alan Robinson. Earlier this year, Alan was called to give evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry on Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain. The inquiry report Feeding Britain was published last week with quite a fanfare, and the report was featured widely in the mainstream media, including The Guardian. Alan thought the report provided a ‘reasonable assessment’ of food poverty in Britain and its causes. He said: ‘It sets the scene and talks about food costs and how prices have increased since 2003 compared with other countries such as France, Germany and the US. It also shows how housing inflation and fuel costs are more here than in any of those other countries, and that income is less.’ The inquiry report pointed out how the effects are cumulative, ‘and the gap between managing and not managing gets worse every year and has proliferated since 2003. Post-2003, the effect has impacted on lower income people much more.’

Alan and his dedicated teams of volunteers at these food banks in Greenwich are doing their utmost to ease the plight of people caught without food and without enough income in this part of South-East London. After speaking to him and meeting Hayley and her family, I turned to the inquiry report in search of hope for the future for people like them – proud people who are dedicated, hard-working parents and find it humiliating to end up in a food bank a week before their baby is due.

I’m sad to say that I finished this report with little reassurance that things are going to improve. I really don’t doubt that the church leaders and other individuals behind it – including MP Frank Field and even Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin who apologised following the report’s launch after saying that ‘poor people don’t know how to cook’ – are well-intentioned and genuinely want to help tackle and even solve this very British problem.

But despite wanting to be optimistic, I was left feeling very disappointed. It heavily promotes ideas that are worthy enough in themselves such as redistibuting fresh surplus food (even though I have my doubts about there being substantial quantities of  local and usable food available to redistribute week after week), and points to the success of a ‘social supermarket’ model currently up and running in one town in South Yorkshire. It wants other areas identified where the model can be rolled out.

But the report’s central recommendation is for the creation of a new national network called Feeding Britain, composed of the food bank movement and other providers of food assistance, the voluntary organisations redistributing fresh surplus food, the food industry and representatives from ‘each of the eight government departments whose policy affects the numbers of people at risk of hunger’.

It recommends that the Government initially provides support to facilitate the setting up of 12 pilot projects – one in each UK region – to draw together ‘private, voluntary and public expertise to eliminate hunger’. Central to the overall success of this, it says, ‘is the local point of contact, perhaps called “Food Bank Plus”‘. It focuses on ‘fostering the co-location of services in a ‘reformed One Stop Shop/Food Bank Plus model, in which food assistance providers become an integral part of local hubs that help people out of hunger by addressing some of its root causes such as problem debt, addictions, access to benefits and difficulty coping on a low income’.

But the report seems to have little if anything to say about levels of UK benefits that the Council of Europe has slammed as ‘inadequate’. Deep in the separately published review evidence, there is a mention that the real value of child benefit across the decade to 2013 fell by £1.80 a week, and the real value of jobseeker’s allowance fell by £3.55 a week. The real value of the National Minimum Wage fell from £6.46 in 2008 to £6.19 in 2103.

While the report does say that a national strategy to tackle low pay is ‘essential’, it then strangely seems to pull its punches by saying that it merely ‘aspires to see household incomes at the bottom that are more able to absorb shocks without even greater support from taxpayers’. There is a fudge recommendation that the Low Pay Commission should be empowered to ‘set reference minimum wage rates in each sector of the economy… and for these powers to be used immediately to encourage higher minimum wages in sectors of the economy that can most easily afford them such as finance and banking’.

I did not see much evidence of the report attempting to address through the recommendations the real, cumulative impact of low benefits and other factors on UK disposable incomes, resilience when faced with a crisis, and on weekly food budgets. The other factors include – but are not limited to – zero hours contracts, high public transport costs, low levels of social housing and vast increases in self-employment. The inflexibility of the HMRC when it comes to adjusting work and child tax credits quickly when people’s life circumstances change did not seem to get a mention either. Neither did the main report really touch on the impact trends such as zero hours contracts and casual work in areas including retail and social care have on family life and routines and the time available to shop for and prepare food.

My conclusions about the report firmly echo some of those expressed neatly by Richard Bridge in this letter to the Guardian (it’s the second letter in the series). In it he says there’s a ‘real danger that the proposed solutions in the Feeding Britain report deflect from the political urgency of addressing the structural underlying issues of poverty’. He adds that ‘if the justiciability of the right to food is to be regarded as anything more than illusory, it is critical that we look upstream at addressing the adequacy of wages and social security’.

On free school meals, the report does recommend that the Department for Education prioritises poor children from working families in any future expansion of the free school meals programme. That’s a worthwhile recommendation. But will autonomous academies and free schools be equally interested in ensuring this happens? What will really happen on the ground to help poor children in both working and non-working families once the Conservatives slash school spending by a quarter (as the Liberal Democrats claimed yesterday).

I was also quite taken aback by the main report’s tone when talking about the victims of Britain’s culture of low pay, low benefits by international standards, and its increasingly low levels of social support as the public sector shrinks daily. Some of its references to food bank clients and what it sometimes refers to as their ‘lifestyles’ are at best paternalistic and at worst judgemental. Some of its comments seem to lack balance and empathy. Some examples:

‘…Evidence presented to the inquiry confronted us with the unpleasant truth that some children, we do not know how many, are hungry when they reach school because of the chaotic conditions in their homes. A large percentage of the primary schools that submitted evidence to the inquiry said they had witnessed children arriving at school hungry because their parents could not, or would not, wake up to make them breakfast, or bring them to the school breakfast club.’

The report continues:

‘But we should not leave the duty resting with schools. Parents have duties, and these duties are not abated by the chaos resulting from their lifestyle.’

It adds:

‘We recommend that schools should wherever possible refer such chaotic families to their local Troubled Families project, whose success can be measured in the number of families they have “turned around” to being functioning in the normal way.’

When talking about benefit sanctions, the report includes the comment:

“Some sanctioned claimants do not kick up a fuss because they may, for example, have been working on the side whilst claiming and see the sanction as part of the business plan of fraudulently claiming benefit.”

There is a certain narrative that is implied in this report of a benign state trying its best to rescue vulnerable families from the consequences of their own chaotic ‘lifestyle’ choices. A picture seemed to emerge of unfortunates with a hapless tendency to budget badly and get into debt. This bears little or no resemblance to the lives of the vast majority of the people I’ve interviewed in food banks here in London – including Hayley and her family. I would describe them as dignified, resourceful and resilient in the face of circumstances that are adverse in the extreme. Many have severe and long-standing physical or mental health (often a combination) issues for which the state is offering no support. Many are parked on below subsistence level benefits while they wait for work capability assessments that are often of highly dubious quality. It is hard to see how their health can do other than get worse in this situation.

The evidence review does helpfully feature a number of case studies and personal testimonies, including oral evidence from anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe and other submissions from food bank clients. I was also pleased to see that it  included two accounts of  client experiences from a number that I submitted to the inquiry myself . But I would have welcomed much more of an attempt to give a clear voice in the body of the report to more of  the individuals forced through no choice of their own to turn to food banks. After all, they are there because, as Richard Bridge says in his Guardian letter, their right to adequate food, as rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is being disregarded.

If the severe economic crisis that the Bank of England has stress tested for does materialise in 2015, is the roll-out of a regionally-focused ‘Food Bank Plus’ network being quickly designed as a first-line defence against widespread hunger and food poverty?

There are many individual laudable ideas here. But this report does not pretend to be a serious attempt to fix the deep structural causes of growing inequality in Britain and to be fair to the inquiry team it wasn’t set up to do this.

To help the core group of people who seem most in need of the food banks in this part of London, what we require are benefits for those who really need them that are set at a level that might meet people’s most basic of needs – ie for food and shelter. We also need a reversal of the current rapid disinvestment in the public realm. We need the sort of high-quality truly joined-up public services – including health and well-being services – that could really revolutionalise lives across the generations. Cooking classes, help with making depleted budgets ‘stretch further’ and debt counselling – however well-intentioned – just will not provide a long-term and sustainable solution.

Tragically, the most vulnerable people continue to be increasingly marginalised and scapegoated by the Government. Its judgements and attitudes towards those least able to defend themselves are being mirrored by another group of citizens who know that they and their children are also being left behind economically and by society. We live in dangerous times.

 

Linda Tirado: ‘We’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently.  Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.

Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.

Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of  difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.

We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of  many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.

She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs.  It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):

  • Rest is a luxury for the rich
  • Planning isn’t in the mix
  • We’ve learned not to try too hard to be middle class (it never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again)
  • Better not to try (see above)
  • Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
  • Convenience food is just that
  • It’s hard to get a bank account
  • Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
  • I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
  • I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant

The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.

She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of  what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.

Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them –  that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere  in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.

In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough  – or maybe just enough –  to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.

Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and  have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a  fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.

If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.

I’ll leave the last words to Linda:  ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Help feed people in need appeal now underway!

At this London food bank, volunteers are getting down to Tesco today to encourage local donations during the three-day nationwide collection of emergency food.  Lots of new volunteers are helping with this wonderful event running at Tesco stores throughout the country.

The Trussell Trust is partnering with Tesco and Fareshare to hold the food collection.  The aim is to ensure its network of food banks can provide emergency food to more local people in crisis. Someone in your street or round the corner from you could benefit from your donation this weekend. Donate a can or two of food at your local Tesco store today, tomorrow (November 30th) or Sunday (December 1st). By doing this you can stop someone going hungry in your area.

One of the people being helped in our London food bank today was Theresa (not her real name), 49.  She’s working three low-paid part-time jobs, but had to give up work for a couple of  weeks recently because her 19 year old daughter is experiencing psychosis. Theresa, who has no partner, only gets paid leave/holiday pay in one of her jobs. But she had no choice other than to be there to support her daughter through a critical time. Theresa, who had to rush off to make it on time for one of her jobs,  says: “It’s very hard. Lack of money is the cause of everything, but I can’t show stress in front of my daughter, as she can’t cope with it. It does affect me though. My daughter is getting better, but it’s a long process.”

The donations made during major food collections such as the one this weekend will go directly towards making life a bit better for people like Theresa.

This is the Trussell Trust’s second nationwide supermarket collection, and Tesco is the first national supermarket to partner with food banks. Tesco will “top-up” your food donations by 30 per cent, making your gift go even further. It’s heartening that Tesco has recognised the level of need, as more and more individuals and families hit a crisis.  The Trussell Trust says it is “so excited that the UK’s largest supermarket has caught our vision and is working with us and Fareshare to fight food poverty”.

All food donated at Tesco food bank collections will go directly to the local food bank to help local people in need.