Tales from the food bank (49)

by Rick Johansen

It was a quiet week last week with many people getting their one-off cost of living payments but sadly today we were back to the new normal of food poverty. A filthy wet, overcast day, with occasional hail showers, saw us open up the doors earlier than usual, ensuring our callers didn’t have to suffer in the elements, while they waited for relief from destitution. You hope against hope that the quiet week is the sign of better times, but the following week the dispiriting reality dawns and you know last week was just a blip.

I have a degree of sympathy for all our callers, some more than others, if I am being honest. But having made an indistinct distinction, whatever your motive, whatever sort of person you are, there can’t be a much worse feeling than running out of money and food. People have said to me before that they were at the end of their tether and nearing the end of hope when they were forced to see us because the alternative was hunger. And when you need help from a food bank when you are working hard and playing by the rules, it must be heartbreaking.

I saw a couple of people who are in work, one in low paid insecure work, another on a zero hours contract. In both cases, the money – and we are talking very small amounts of money – simply ran out. One man came in far earlier than his appointment because he needed to be in work for a certain time and he asked whether we could see him sooner rather than later. Now I was not born yesterday, so I could have said, “Sorry, mate. We’ve got other people who are without money for food and you’ll just have to wait your turn“, but I didn’t and don’t. Having investigated benefit fraud for 15 years, I know that you can’t always believe everything you are told, but in this role, I feel it’s not my job to judge, to guess or assume that someone is trying it on. So if someone tells me they need to seen earlier because they have to be in work at a certain time, then I accept it on face value. Any doubts I may have, I leave them to one side. If someone tries it on because they want to jump the queue, then if I’m in the room they’ll likely get away with it. It could be happening, I doubt that it is and ultimately I couldn’t care less. How desperate would you need to be to try it on at the last chance saloon?

One caller asked us, tearfully, to drive her home because she could not carry what we gave her all the way. It was just too far. I didn’t think twice about it, although I had to get my response confirmed by The Office. We would not be giving callers lifts home for two reasons. We’re not insured to do that and it’s not our responsibility. A third would be that I was simply not going to do it. And anyway, given that so many of our callers come from a very small area, word would soon get out that we were offering a free taxi service. Harsh, you might say, but the point is we are food bank volunteers, not volunteer ersatz taxi and delivery drivers. There is, and has to be, a limit to what we can do and provide. But saying no still left me feeling a bit shit and a wee bit guilty.

Of all things, we ran out of baked beans today, which is a bit of a blow because they’re just about our most requested item. No one wants the lentils, pulses and beans we offer – and neither would I, even if I was on the other side of the counter, so to speak – but everyone loves beans. Which is probably why we had none left. But at least the increase in stock brought about by the harvest appeal means we have plenty of other stuff.

In a couple of weeks, we’re at a large supermarket collecting for Christmas. Being the sort of kind and generous person I am, I’ve volunteered to do a shift. In truth, it’s something I am really looking forward to, meeting up with people, explaining what we do and how their generous donations make a vital difference to people’s lives. We do two big collections a year, one of which is at Christmas, and I feel it works well. It also shows that, as I have said before, poverty is not just for Christmas, it’s for all year round so I would encourage everyone to donate what they can for the Christmas effort but also to remember why food banks are there all year long.

All the signs suggest this will be a very busy Christmas for food banks everywhere and ours will be no exception. We could end food poverty in a heartbeat if we really wanted to. Rishi Sunak didn’t even bother to mention it in the King’s Speech, so it looks like we could still be around next Christmas, too.

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