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 stolensleep.com

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear