I knew things were really bad when I cracked open the “emergency” tin of sardines. Photo: Getty
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I never thought I would need a food bank

It’s a myth that only those in long-term poverty and on benefits use food banks. The rising cost of utilities, rent, petrol, groceries and the expense of childcare has left many families with no other choice.

It is not every day you wait in an alley for a stranger to drop off a package.

But one morning not so long ago, I found myself doing just that.

I am not proud of myself.

My husband had lost his job and company car, my statutory maternity allowance had come to an end and we had fallen behind on our bills. I had a baby and young toddler at home so I was struggling to find work to fit around the sleepless nights and busy days. It was a really difficult time.

“I’ll meet you at 11.30,” I was told over the phone. “I’ll have what you need.”

“But how will I know who you are?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ll know,” they replied, and hung up without another word.

As I waited to meet my contact I glanced nervously around me. Soon I would have what I needed and everything would be ok.

I had never been desperate enough to do anything like this before. But things had got so bad I knew I could not go another day without it.

“Excuse me, love. Emily-Jane, is it?” A soft voice broke the silence. I turned to face an elderly lady pushing a tartan trolley. Not what I was expecting, but then again, I didn’t really know what to expect that day. I nodded.

She had a quick scan of the alley to confirm that we were alone before reaching into her trolley.

Then she handed me everything I needed… to feed my family for the next three days!

I thanked the lovely lady from the food bank and headed home to make dinner.

Before this experience I had never given much thought to food banks. I assumed they were for people in long-term poverty or struggling to make ends meet on benefits. I certainly never thought I would ever need to be referred to one.

But just as the cost of living got higher, our income got lower and before I knew it we were overdrawn, unable to afford heating and raiding the penny jar in the hope of scraping together enough money for our next meal.

I knew things were really bad when I cracked open the “emergency” tin of sardines.

They had been in the back of the cupboard for about two years, but until now I hadn’t had an emergency worthy of them.

I have never been rich, but when we had struggled in the past there was always an overdraft, some spare change or a few quid left in the bank to tide us over. But not this time.

We had sold everything we had of value, I couldn’t claim job-seekers allowance because I had been self-employed, we had used all our savings, maxed out our credit cards and borrowed money from family, so we were out of options… and emergency sardines.  

But even then the food bank didn’t cross my mind. My husband was working full time having managed to find a new (lower-paid) job so we could cover our rent. Food banks were for people in real poverty, weren’t they? We had no money, we were hungry, but we had a roof over our heads.

“We certainly can’t accept charity food. We’re not starving yet!” I told my health visitor after she suggested a food bank during a routine visit.

“So, what are you feeding the children for dinner tonight?”  

“I have couple of Weetabix left.”

“So what about breakfast tomorrow?”

Fair point.

One quick phone call later and I was gratefully on my way to accept three days’ worth of charity food.

Fortunately, things have got a lot better since then.

I have found a weekend job in a coffee shop, which gives us enough money for a week’s worth of food, nappies and petrol and as my partner is at home we don’t have to pay for childcare. My three year old has started pre-school and my baby occasionally watches an entire episode of Fireman Sam so I have a little more time to take on freelance projects and build up my client base.

When I decided to take a short break from my full time career in journalism to have children I never thought it would mean reliving my student days by shopping in charity shops, wearing hand-me-down clothes, living on budget meals and taking on a Saturday job.

It is a misconception that it is only those in long-term poverty and on benefits who use food banks. The rising cost of utilities, rent, petrol, groceries and the expense of childcare has left many families on low to average incomes in hardship.

We live in a society where people are so afraid to admit their lives are less than perfect, that when they are in financial difficulty they tend to keep it to themselves. I assumed that everyone else I knew with young children were doing fine. But I was wrong.

Since “coming out” about my money troubles fellow mothers have confessed that they are also struggling to make ends meet.  A solicitor who works part-time in a pub, a health care professional who is now a part-time Avon lady and an executive who set up her own cleaning business – all of whom plan to return to their careers once the children are at school.

The reality is that if living costs continue to rise and wages stay the same – food banks will not only be in demand by people in long-term poverty but by families who can no longer make their income stretch far enough.

The Jubilee Food Bank was a lifeline for me during a very hard time but I am one of the lucky ones. Mine was a temporary situation, but for some people things can go from bad to worse in a very short space of time.

I may not be able to afford expensive holidays, eat at posh restaurants or buy designer clothes just yet; but I get to enjoy being at home with my two daughters for the very short time that they are babies. And I reckon that makes me pretty well off indeed!

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, contributor for Huffington Post UK and creator of humorous parenting site

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.