Tales from the food bank (55)

by Rick Johansen

I don’t know about the shortest day of the year. At our food bank here in Melchester, it was the longest day. Due to exceptional demand, we stayed open for an extra hour and volunteers were on overtime rates. I think I had as many as three, possibly four, small pieces of chocolate. Without wishing to come across as all boastful, I reckon I deserved every mouthful.

Last week was the busiest week in the 11 year history of our food bank and by some considerable distance. The paid staff worked themselves to a near standstill. You can rightly assume that they are not the best paid workers in the land, but then again so many of the most important jobs attract the lowest wages. What a fucked up country this is.

We are operating at full, that is to say maximum, capacity. There are not enough paid and volunteer staff, food, premises or hours in the day to do anymore. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt always talks about the “tough decisions” he has to make. When he says “tough decisions”, he means tough decisions for poor people because he is going to make them poorer. People like us pick up the slack, but now the slack has been taken up and more.

If you thought things were bad in the country, wait until you read this. Food banks up and down the land, including ours, are having to turn people away, people who don’t have food and don’t have money to get any food. We are having to tell distressed and tearful hungry people that the place of last resort came before us. As a volunteer, I am spared the job of telling people that we can’t give them anything to eat, but my paid colleagues have to. They are tired, worn out; possibly burnt out and I suspect feeling quite low about the way things are going. They set out to alleviate food poverty but eventually food poverty has become so great that the safety net is too small, way too small.

The extra hour passed so quickly, I barely noticed. We were slightly down on staff numbers due to Covid and I found myself meeting, greeting and taking requests from a steady stream of people. The world and her husband came by today, from full-time workers, people whose finances were buggered up by moving from one insecure minimum wage job to another, someone just out of hospital from a cancer operation, recovering drug addicts, senior citizens who pensions just weren’t cutting it this winter and disabled people whose benefits weren’t enough to cover their modest lives.

There are no Christmas gifts or bonuses for food bank staff, which is exactly how it should be. Volunteers rarely have more than a cup of tea or coffee when working and I don’t even have that, sticking with a glass of water. That’s my guilt complex at work as usual. I figure that people who so generously donate to food banks don’t expect the staff to help themselves to things meant for the true victims of food poverty. I don’t expect, or even want, praise for what I do. I am there because I want to be there. And if you are doing something you want to do, that’s hardly martyrdom, is it?

I’m back again next week, between Christmas and the New Year, because there will always be people who need our help. The big Christmas appeals, the one-off Christmas hampers and the like will all be forgotten about for the next 11 months or so. It’s of course great that people had a slightly less shit Christmas than the might otherwise have had because of the various Christmas initiatives – and I include our efforts in this – but in the not so grand scheme of things, it was just a Band Aid. And like Bob Geldof’s Band Aid, people were heroes just for one day before grim normality resumed.

I am the lucky one. I get the chance to help people, I work with some of the best people I have ever met; people who give that most precious thing, time. In the cold light of day, if I’d been paid the minimum wage today, I’d have grossed £35 for my time this week. That and the weekly donation we make to the Trussell Trust is our contribution to the fight – and it increasingly feels more like a fight – against food poverty.

And what we see every single week in Melchester food bank is the consequence of 13 years of Conservative government. David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak caused this mess, all of it, every single bit of it. All these political lowlifes subscribe to a God of some sort whereas I subscribe to none at all. I’m the atheist in the church in which our local food bank operates who gives a fuck where the political God squad doesn’t. I don’t wish that there was a God or a reward in Heaven for doing good things, but I do wish there was a hell to go to for the politicians to go to. But if I am wrong and there really is a God and that he agrees with their actions, he must be a pretty bad bloke.

Happy holidays, everyone.


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