BBC Food’s Eileen Smith discusses the financial challenges faced by many struggling families
It was sheer joy when @EileenSmithBBC ) caught up with me last week to chat about finding a roof over her head. From her beautiful home in south London to the day of work:
“I am made up,” she tells me.
“It all started in August 2017 when I lost my job after 15 years as a nurse at the London and Sussex Partnership NHS Trust. The stress of the uncertainty only got worse when I went into an office job – only to be told I couldn’t continue.
“In desperation, I contacted my local food bank. I was one of the first people to start using it, but it was freezing cold and dark and of course the food was cold.
“So then I and my daughter went to work in my suit. We wore cardigans. And we went in with tea towels to use as pans.”
I am as much in tears as you are….This business is complex; it only works when the system works brilliantly!
Realising she had no real savings to fall back on, she used money from her savings to buy food for the bank, and another from a friend, she says.
This is a small mercy in a country where another staggering 24.5 million people are in work but are worse off than they were a year ago, with employment rates the highest they have been since records began in 1971.
So how can we care about all of these people? I spoke to a number of charity directors, food bank workers and welfare experts to work out what kind of help we can best give.
Crisis, a homelessness charity, operates several food banks in London and says it works with 320 emergency support agencies across the UK.
It has more than 100,000 on its books, with 10,000 of them in London.
Sarah Robertson, the director of corporate responsibility and integrity, says a lot of its clients come to it in the hope that food bank will be the last chance.
“They may not want to beg, but many find themselves in a situation where they’ve exhausted every other route they have to get benefits that will feed them – or a roof over their head.
“The crisis food bank has a break-down of what it takes to feed a family. One in five people are dependent on emergency food that is provided by charities.
“That’s up 3% from a year ago. The cost of food is cheaper now – but wages aren’t. We are no longer in an environment where work provides the means to prosperity.”
The charity is calling for the Government to re-consider its benefit rules and introduce more “flexible support” from employers to tackle the squeezed middle.
It argues that “working tax credits that encourage the low paid to stay in work is the best way of tackling poverty”.
Sarah Robertson says: “It is not just about handing out food. As a welfare rights campaign we are trying to make sure people are given as much support as they need.
“Too often food banks are seen as a temporary fix and a Band-Aid that provides a temporary respite. But the reality is a long-term fix is required.”
Martin Barrett, chief executive of the London Food Bank, was recently awarded an MBE for his work.
He stresses that there is a growing demand for emergency assistance – in fact, demand is going up.
He says the reason is because food banks are good at their job and are doing what they are there to do.
But the he says there is little that you can do for the massive benefit backlog in the UK – which over 150,000 people are stuck on.
Martin says: “The reason we got our MBE is that we help change behaviour. We have to organise these people to learn how to live on a reduced income, so they have confidence to apply for work and look for employment.”
Read the full story on Food Bank’s Challenge to the Government, here