We often hear about “foodbank users” in the news – thousands of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters bundled together into one hasty group, where they are all the more easy to shame, blame or quietly ignore. But the women we meet at the foodbank aren’t defined by the visit they make to us, once or twice, when life is very difficult. They are so much more than that. They are some of the strongest people I know.
They are women like Sasha, a self-employed mum who escaped domestic violence. She chose freedom and safety in a refuge but left behind a degree of financial security, and her home. “You change how you think about yourself and for a long time you listen to ‘you’re stupid’, and you start to believe,” says Sasha, “But now it’s different.”
Sasha, like most of our guests, was shocked to discover she needed a foodbank: “All your life you have a normal life, and don’t think about it. You help people; you don’t need people to help you. But then things go wrong – and it’s not bad that you come here and take something that is being offered to help.”
Then there’s Rose. Her husband left and her landlady evicted her. Homeless, she turned to the council for help, but ended up in three places in three months – two bed and breakfasts and then temporary accommodation. Their new temporary home is three miles from her four-year-old daughter’s primary school and – in line with council policy – the accommodation has simple cooking facilities but no fridge, freezer or washing machine.
With no money to buy a second-hand fridge, and increased travel costs to take her daughter to school, Rose somehow juggled buying fresh food daily while being on a tight budget. Then she was told a benefit was stopping because her child was turning five. “But,” she says, “God gave me my daughter and I am happy for that.”
And we should also mention Emma, who single-handedly defeated the army of cockroaches that greeted her when she was rehoused, and who brought her child back to primary school via two buses and a train on time for a year. Plus Maya, who fled domestic violence and has been living, cooking and sleeping with her toddler in one room for two years while sharing a bathroom with four other homeless families. She researches free activities to find her son space to run and grow, learns new skills so she is ready to work when her son goes to school, and provides vital emotional support to the new mums around her.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them,” wrote Maya Angelou. This is what we see in the women who visit us. You are not reduced by the hardship you currently face, or by the voices that say “supply-driven foodbanks”, “work always pays”, “shirker”.
We know the truth. That you are immensely strong, resourceful, capable of walking forward even when the load you are carrying is so heavy. You are significant. And today, you were courageous enough to ask for a little bit of help. It’s an honour to be here with you.
Sarah Chapman is a volunteer and trustee at Wandsworth Foodbank. All names have been changed.