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

PETER MACDIARMID/REX
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories