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?”
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