What is it that traps people in food poverty, and what can help to unlock it?
We visited a FoodCycle meal at Arbury Road Baptist Church in Cambridge, to speak to some of the diners.
FoodCycle uses surplus food to cook and serve 850 meals a week around the country on a pay-what-you-choose basis, providing community and free or low-cost food to people who are lonely, struggling to make ends meet, or looking for more community.
Here, Emma shares her story.
I am a single mum of three and have used food banks three times since November 2017.
It felt really awful to be in that position; I went from a £30,000-a-year job in HR to ending up there in 6 months. Following my husband and I separating, he left me with a lot of debt and I couldn’t sustain living costs and childcare on my own so I had to give up my job and claim income support.
It’s really hard to go to the food bank when you are used to doing your own shopping and supporting yourself. The volunteers were really good and didn’t judge but I still got upset, and they were comforting. At the time, I hadn’t realised you’re limited to how many time you can use food banks per year and I found that concept quite bizarre. It’s there to help people when they are in need but you can’t dictate when and how many times they will be in need – everyone’s circumstances are different.
While they give you a fair bit, they don’t give everything you need to make meals. You get a lot of tinned veg and dried stuff but not fresh or frozen stuff, which I understand why because of storage and best before dates, so it’s reliant on people being able to be a bit creative in the kitchen – luckily I’m fine but that won’t always be the case.
When I first visited a food bank in November 2017, I had 50p to last me four days. I had paid all the bills expecting my husband to transfer his contribution towards the debts that he’d promised for him to just change his mind hence the reason I had no money.
I called up the income support line expecting them to be able to help and was advised to go to Citizens’ Advice in the centre of town, but you can’t get there without driving or taking the bus. I drove as I had enough fuel but not enough to travel by bus and as it’s all permit or paid parking.
I used the last of my money to pay for on the street parking, but I was there longer than expected and I got a parking ticket. I later found out I could have just gone to the local children’s centre which is just up the road! There needs to be better communication of where you go for help.
At the point when you go on to income support which not everyone is okay doing people need to know what they are supposed to do in certain situations. They should have an information point or pack, so you can find where all these things are; you shouldn’t have to go chasing to find food.
During the school holidays I found out there are free lunches for children in the local community centres which is a big help as you go from getting school meals paid for to then having extra meals to provide, and it’s not cheap to make healthy meals. People talk about childhood obesity and eating rubbish, but it’s sometimes cheaper for people. When supermarkets make healthy stuff more expensive its to be expected isn’t it? There are big differences in what you can get between Aldi and Tesco but even Aldi are now starting to putting their prices up.
I get income support every two weeks which works out at £75 a week and child tax credits on top of that, but the Government have introduced the housing benefit cap, and I had a letter saying I now have to pay £30 a week rent. They do not appreciate the cost of living in different areas of the UK. It’s not just London that’s expensive to live – Cambridge is comparable!
I am from King’s Lynn originally but I moved here ten years ago as there aren’t the opportunities in that area that living in Cambridge brings; not just for me but for my children too.
I don’t know why the Government don’t sit down with groups, they make decisions on things that they are not experienced to make decisions on. They need to speak to and listen to the people who live in the situation.
There’s just not enough to protect those who have had a difficult relationship/marital break down and their children.
Going from working in a professional job to the position I am in now has given me a completely different view. I can totally see how people end up on the streets; it’s really really scary.
FoodCycle is great because it’s a little hub. It’s nice to have that sense of community and maybe they could have people here to do talks too or give information like Citizens’ Advice or Woman’s Aid etc .
Things like the introduction of a benefit cap in my opinion are just ridiculous if they don’t look at individual situations/living costs/cost of living in certain areas. I struggle as it is; it’s not a one size fits all. To have an extra £30 a week to pay out with immediate effect is insane. There’s just so much pressure on people, unnecessarily!
The bigger picture
First-hand accounts like Emma’s are hugely important. They help us all understand the causes of food poverty, appreciate more fully the human impact it has, and identify potential solutions.
Emma is not alone in her experiences. In February, several other mums spoke to us when we visited Sheffield, saying what had caused them to need food banks, and what could have averted that need. These stories represent just a fraction of the people who visit food banks, but they raise issues that ring true for many people across the country.
Emma is receiving income support, but that has been frozen along with other working age benefits in recent years, failing to keep pace with rising living costs. That freeze means that people on already low incomes have become worse off in real terms. In October, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation projected that an extra 470,000 people would be in poverty by 2020 if the freeze continues, but demonstrated that if benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance kept pace with inflation, then 380,000 people could escape the rising tide.
Emma talks about the difficulties of feeding children during the school holidays. This is something that can, and may soon, be addressed. In January, Frank Field MP presented a bill in Parliament proposing the Government allocate all councils the funds to provide food and activities during the holidays, to help children who might otherwise go hungry. There have been campaigns for this for 109 years and the Government is now to undertake research and pilot projects.
That’s just one of the strands of the End Hunger UK campaign, which brings together people, communities and organisations from around the country. We have outlined nine proposals that would reduce and ultimately end hunger in the UK. We all want a compassionate and just society, and we can get there if we work together, share stories and share ideas. Please take a look at the campaign proposals here, see how you can get involved, and help create a society where everyone has access to good food, and where nobody need go to bed hungry.
Thank you to Food Cycle for inviting us to Cambridge and above all to Emma for sharing her story.