My name is Shirley Eaton. This is my food bank story.
The first time I went to the food bank was about 18 months ago.
I was working in a sub post office, as a manager, on a very low wage. I was in charge of tens of thousands of people’s money, but had nothing for myself.
When I handed my notice in, I was due to start my next job, but it did not start straight away; there was a gap in between the jobs.
I went to my housing provider to explain about my rent difficulties, as I think I only had about £14 in the bank at that point. They said they could give me a food voucher. I said, you know, with the best will in the world that isn’t going to solve the problem – but I took it, and I went.
The food bank was at the Salvation Army at Ellesmere Port, and because I knew them and went to church I was familiar with the building. I think it may be harder and worse for people who have never been to a place.
Later on, I had occasion to go again. I’ve been twice all together. I remember thinking ‘I’m 58 years old and having to resort to this. I felt a sense of failure that I was not better off, although later on you see it differently.
I have been to food poverty meetings and looking back I am just glad it was there. At the time, it was helpful, and it was a lifeline, but I can understand how people find it difficult.
The Government really need to get their finger out and do something, because if it was not for churches setting up food banks and people donating food, a lot of people would be in a much worse position. Food banks were not meant to be a ‘heal all’ kind of thing. The Government seems to have taken it as part of the benefits system, but it is not.
You can always be just one pay cheque away from being in a right mess, and it can happen to anybody, it really can, even if you’re working. I remember reading a report that said the working poor were the second highest users of food banks.
But there are other things happening as well. In Ellesmere Port there is a place where you pay £4 a week and can get £16 to £20 worth of food. The stuff is all on or just before its sell-by date, but still perfectly edible. So it saves it going to landfill, and helps people. You can pick out what you want but you never know what will be there, as it depends on who donates to it, but Marks & Spencer have been backing it, and giving money to help.
Originally, they said they would accept 50 members, but I heard at the last count that it was 260 now, and there’s a waiting list. It’s not means tested either; anyone can go along.
At the food banks, you can get some choice – maybe pasta or rice. But here, they have four colour codes – green, yellow, blue, and red – and you can choose four green items, three yellow ones, two blue and one red. Often your red will be meat or fish.
But long term, I don’t know what the answer is. The Government has got to take some responsibility for it. The job of finding answers isn’t lying with the people who it should be lying with. It’s hard to know what the answer is and what will happen, but the politicians are paid enough to come up with some answers. We are not. We have to live with the decisions they make, and part of the challenge is ensuring people lived experience of poverty can meet with people in power so they can come up with solutions.
The bigger picture
People who have worked in food banks will testify that Shirley’s story is not unusual. Many people in the UK are precariously close to being swept into the currents of poverty. An unexpected loss of income can leave people in sudden and severe difficulty.
The pantry project Shirley talks about is a fantastic project. Church Action on Poverty runs a social franchise called Your Local Pantry, helping to set up similar projects all over the country. Pantries help to reduce costs for people on low incomes, and are working well. At the same time though, more must be done to tackle the root causes of poverty and hunger, so that fewer people are swept into difficulties.
That’s why we are supporting the End Hunger UK campaign. It sets out nine potential Government policies, all of which would help to reduce hunger and poverty, tackling the issue proactively rather than always reactively. The campaign is backed by many charities and community groups all over the UK. Why not see how you could get involved – visit endhungeruk.org