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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump