How poverty is changing: Lessons from 8 years in a soup kitchen

“It’s very distressing. I think MPs should come down my street sometimes.”

There are people and projects across the UK doing remarkable work to ease hunger in their communities. Neruka White (pictured in the middle above, with two volunteers) has run a soup kitchen in Harehills, Leeds, for eight years. She tells us what changes she has seen in her neighbourhood, and says what needs to now change at national level.

> End Hunger UK: 9 ways Government could help end food poverty

We offer a free meal every Wednesday, and a food parcel. We also do mini workshops where we give advice and have discussions about money management and jobs and housing problems, and stuff like that, and we help people get other people involved.

We started eight years ago. It was just an idea I had, to use the church hall. I have been coming to church here for some years and noticed the poverty in the area. A lot of families are struggling and some people seem isolated and there were a lot of asylum seekers and refugees struggling, so it was just laid on my heart to get something started. The hall used to operate as an elderly day centre many years ago and that had stopped because the ladies who ran it had got too old. In the early 2000s, there was an after-school club but that had stopped as well, and I thought this was the next vision.

We usually get over 20 people in, and my family and volunteers helping out.

We need to stop the poverty before it gets there. We need to help prepare people to be able to look after themselves. A great deal of people in this generation are expecting to be taken care of, then when that care is taken away we are not prepared. Or they are told to go to work but they are not trained or educated or ready for that work.

But also, there are a lot of zero-hours jobs going around. My son is very qualified and registered with agencies but has not been offered work in over two months, so he had to give up his flat and come back to live with us, after living on his own for 11 years.

I think the Government need to make sure there is enough money and resources available to take care especially of the children. Since we are in this situation, they have to take responsibility for what they have caused and make sure the next generation do not continue in the level of poverty there is now. Children need to be protected and cared for.

A great deal of people here are from Chapeltown, many who come are homeless, we get lots of people from Harehills and we also get people from further away, in LS13, LS12, LS16 and LS17.

When my children were growing up, I did experience a lot of difficult times because I had four children and there were years when we went through hard times, and my husband was working in those times. That was before we moved to the UK from Jamaica, but it was also hard here.

Children need to know that they can rely on adults to take care of them and to prepare them so that when they grow up they can be responsible to look after others. You get a lot of truancy if children are not getting food, and you can get more bullying – either they themselves do it, or they are on the receiving end.

In many cases, people are finding it worse. When we started eight years ago we had a quick turnaround of people. They would maybe come for a few weeks or months then go away and you would get fresh people. Now, we do get new people but we also get more people coming in again and again and again, especially people who are homeless or on low incomes or have had their benefits taken away. People are definitely finding it harder to get out of their situations, especially on zero-hour contracts or if they are not working.

It feels like we are going back to Victorian times. It feels as if people are going to end up in workhouses because they cannot afford to pay their rent. It feels like that. Where we are living, it feels like that. People do not take pride in where they live, everybody has given up hope and has nothing to look forward to. Some young mums with children round here look like ghosts going up and down the street. It’s very distressing. I think MPs should come down my street sometimes.

I think the big problem is there is not enough consideration for everyone. Governments make policies that suit them instead of for the wider nation, to lift people up inclusively. Give everyone a chance of a good life. We are one of the richest countries in the world and I find it shameful there is so much poverty and it feels like nobody can come up with a plan that will enable people to get out of the situation they are in.

Families with children and people on benefits are struggling. Many are having to wait six weeks to get benefits. Many of them are not getting enough work to support their families, so we find that many children are part of the statistics of children living below the poverty line, which is very distressing.

When children are not being fed properly it impacts them emotionally. Educationally they start to perform below their potential at school; if you’re hungry you can’t learn. We need to find a way to be able to support children, to make sure they are fed enough, getting a nutritionally-balanced meal three times a day, so they can feel secure and safe and cared for, so they can grow up to be productive, feeling that they have worth in this world. We can’t continue to let children struggle and be part of a negative statistic. That is just unacceptable.

I would ask politicians to look at the long-term cost to people because if children are not being fed properly and not provided for then in the long-term it means the country is not going to stay as a developed country, it is going to end up going down. The next generation need to be educated, they need to be strong emotionally, physically and mentally to be able to take the country forward. This generation is not going to live forever, no matter how much money you’ve got, so if we do not invest some of the money in all of our children and make sure they are prepared to go forward then that means there is no future for the country.

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