This post has gone in and out of the trash folder a couple of times since I wrote it, but seeing figures today on food bank use has made up my mind for me, hence the title. It is understandable to be outraged by the news that the Red Cross is now working in the UK to help people in poverty, but I am in full-on ‘something must be done’ mode and so am doing something. I have started to fill a box in my kitchen with items to donate to my local food bank.
It’s not complicated (not like trying to eradicate poverty entirely) as you are given a list of what your local food bank wants, or they often run general collection points at supermarkets to encourage people to donate food items while doing the family shopping. I could go through the list, nip to Tesco and load up a basket with the cheapest things that fit their criteria, but I don’t want to do that.
The reason I don’t want to is that I know the sort of people that get helped by food banks. The examples of people helped with emergency food boxes or domestic supplies starter kits are unfortunate on the website for my local one: recovering drug addicts, people with criminal records and so on. Obviously those people are often extremely vulnerable and certainly need the help of food banks and other social care agencies, but in terms of generating sympathy, people are less likely to empathise with those on the fringes of society than they are someone who looks like them – could be them if the coin lands on the wrong side one of these days. It perhaps skews the perception of what people who use food banks are like. I think it does, anyway.
An increasing number of the people needing to use food banks to feed their families are just like anyone else: normal one/two/more-parent families with kids. People who have lost their jobs, can’t get new ones and can’t survive on the increasingly small amounts of benefits given to cover rapidly rising household costs and rent. A few years ago I could very well have been one of them, had circumstances been ever so slightly shitter.
Back in around 2008, I was made redundant, like thousands of other people across the country. Few companies were hiring and each vacancy was receiving hundreds of applications. I couldn’t find another job doing the thing I did and although I got a payment when I left, it wasn’t like I could afford to retire on it and I had a mortgage to pay and a child to support. When the redundancy money had largely been eaten up by staying afloat and paying bills, I signed on for Job Seekers Allowance.
My child didn’t go hungry during that time because the people around me gave me food and took me shopping to make sure we had what we needed. (My nan suddenly started finding all these cleaning products on BOGOF and begged me to take her ‘surplus’ so she didn’t have far more than she could use, for example.) But if I hadn’t have had the support of family and friends, I’d have been in dire need on more than one occasion when something went wrong and precious cash was eaten up by dealing with it. At around the six month point (having been out of work for nearly a year) I got a temporary job and was able to sign off. A few months after that I got the job I do now, back in my chosen field, so it’s all fine.
The thing that inspired this post originally is a blog post written by Sam Candour. Sam’s pulled together some tips on keeping warm and you should check them out here because everything she says really does help and isn’t complicated or expensive to do. My period of the worst of my financial hardship happened to start about this time of year and I remember not daring to turn the thermostat up above 15 degrees Celsius because of the costs. I did lots of the things she’s suggested in her post, which helped. Not eating properly makes you feel the cold more, so it just gets worse if the two things are combined.
Sam wrote another post which you should read: about hunger. As a parent you put your child first anyway. Going without food so that you can give the little bit you have to the smaller, weaker human isn’t a new thing. But it shouldn’t have to happen and it does every single day. It may be to someone you know, maybe not, but there will be families near to you now who know that dinner tonight isn’t going to be the warm and comforting meal we’re looking forward to. You can eat cheaply and you can grow stuff if you have the money, space, time and inclination, but if your money has all gone on rent and other necessities, you can’t just magic it out of thin air when it doesn’t exist, even if everyone is hungry.
I have been looking into donating surplus veg and fruit to local organisations who can pass it on to people who need it next year. I am not sure that there’s a scheme in my area but if there is, I’ll find it and I’ll happily grow extra if it means someone else will get the benefit of it. I was so grateful for boxes of fresh veg and nice stuff people had in their freezers, as well as the times someone took me shopping and just told me to get what I needed. I would like someone else to feel that (albeit transient) sense of relief as the immediate fire goes out and you can plan making the most of what you’ve got before the cycle starts all over again when it runs out. The thing is, it’s totally the wrong time of year to actually do much more than plan to plant in larger quantities: the glut of veg has passed now, hence the decision to donate to food banks.
I do a weekly online food order and I’ve decided that I’m going to start adding in extra items to store up and donate to the food bank once a month. I started with this week’s delivery and just added a few tins of nice-looking soup that were on a good offer and ‘proper’ (branded) baked beans to start stocking up. I remember my daughter thinking they were a treat over supermarket ones back when belts were massively tightened. Every week I’ll add to it, as well as doing a cupboard trawl just before I box it all up, to see if I can add anything else.
I know it’s a silly thing but, for example, I’ve got an unopened tin of mustard powder in the cupboard. I also have 2 opened ones because of the whole daughter uni/house thing, where stuff tends to get brought home and then left, and it lasts for ages so I really don’t need it. I could put that in: it’s great for bringing out the flavour of cheese and can be handy when you can’t afford more than a small block of something mild. But it’s not specifically on the list and I don’t know whether it’s the sort of thing people would want. I wish I knew who to ask. I could ask the food bank staff but calling up and asking whether they would take mustard powder makes me feel shy, so I’ll sling it in and try not to over-think it.
I reckon that with my research skills and the inclination to devote some of my time to this, I can make a reasonable box of tinned and dried goods for about £10 a month, which would cost probably double that, if not more, to buy usually. If I filled it with the cheapest stuff possible, I could possibly quadruple the amount of stuff I donate, but I want someone to enjoy the food and not just because they’re so hungry that they’d eat anything you gave them. I figure my stuff will be split up so hopefully a few children will get a special tea, even if it is only beans on toast.
If my intentions are wrong, albeit well-meant, please tell me. I’m not sure whether nutrition and quality take a back seat in terms of priority where poverty is involved. Is it more important to feed someone as well as you can, or to feed twice the number of people food which you know isn’t going to be as nutritionally beneficial which which is, at least, food? My stuff won’t be useless and I know that anything I give will be appreciated, but if I’m paying it forward (which is my motivation now that I am in a position where I can, a bit) then I want to know I’m doing it right. I’d really appreciate any thoughts you might have on this, even if it’s only to tell me that I’m massively over-thinking it and should just keep filling the box with whatever I want. 🙂