My first session comes at a busy time of the year as staff gear up for Christmas. Each person who comes through the door is offered a hot drink and some toast while they tell volunteers their reasons for being there. A teacher has turned up to ask for a package for a young boy’s family. He arrived at school three days in a row without having had breakfast. When she called the child’s parents, she says his mother broke down in tears saying, “I can’t afford to feed my children.” A woman comes in and says she has recently been moved on to universal credit. She received her last payment from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in mid-November and has been told not to expect anything else until 12 January. She doesn’t know how she will get through the festive period.
The closer we get to Christmas, the busier it gets. The food bank is only open on a Wednesday morning and at least 10 volunteers turn up every week to help the three part-time staff. During one session a small boy of about five approaches me and asks quietly if there is any turkey so that he can have a Christmas dinner. Amid all the desperation, there are moments of light. The food bank will be closed from Christmas Eve until the new year but on one of the last days of opening , a man and his son turn up with bags full of food and toiletries. Their family decided to donate to the food bank rather than buying presents for each other. Most donations come from individuals so there are times when supplies run low, especially of particular items such astoilet rolls, nappies and longlife milk.
Number of parcels issued: 190
Staff thought that things would quieten down after Christmas but the impact of universal credit is starting to be felt and it has become normal for a long queue of people to be waiting outside before the doors open at 10am. In just one morning I speak to four people who have been movedfrom employment support allowance to universal credit. They’ve all been forced to rely on food handouts during the wait for their first payment. One woman says that she needs to attend a hospital appointment but can’t afford the bus fare so will not be going. A man in insecure work has rent arrears that he previously paid £5 a week towards clearing. After being moved to universal credit, he now has to pay £127 a month. He has a serious lung condition and high blood pressure but says he regularly goes without gas and electricity for much of the month. “I top it up once, then when it runs out I just sit in my coat.”
Number of parcels issued: 171
A woman and her four-year-old child arrive at the Emmanuel church, where the food bank is held. They arrived the day before and were given a hot meal at the community cafe that is run from the same building and told to return for an emergency food package. After a run of bad luck, they have ended up sleeping in a car. She says it was so cold one night that there was ice on the inside of the window when they woke up. Volunteers signpost them to various support services and tell them to keep returning until the situation is resolved. People have started to hear about universal credit advance payments but many are too scared to take one. There is a lot of confusion over how much needs to be paid back and when.
Number of parcels issued: 174
Things continue to be busy. Volunteers say that last year it was normal to see around 20 people each week, now sometimes more than 40 parcels are handed out during a single session. A man has travelled six miles by bike. He’ll have to make the same journey back with six heavy bags full of tins, jars and other food. He doesn’t complain, he says he is just grateful for the help.
A pregnant woman has been forced to use the food bank for the first time after being moved on to universal credit. She says she “hasn’t done much eating lately” and has been in hospital with malnutrition following a stomach bug. Her rent is high and there is a list of problems with her home that she is trying to get sorted. She is worried about her children and the new baby and says that feeding them comes before feeding herself.
Another family made their universal credit claim on 14 February and have been told they will not get the first payment until the beginning of April.
Number of parcels issued: 177
Many of the people who use the food bank are middle-aged or younger, but one day three pensioners come in during a single session. One of them, a 69-year-old man, is almost in tears as he says he is using his life savings to pay his rent because of a housing benefit mistake. Despite being of pension age he still works but has recently lost his job and this is the first time he’s used a food bank. As we talk, I can hear his voice breaking. He apologises and quickly leaves with his bags.
A man comes in almost completely doubled over and walking with a stick. Despite a string of health conditions, he has been told he is fit for work. He has to get two buses home and staff are concerned about how he will manage with all his bags of food. He’s helped down to the bus stop but from there he is alone. The volunteers work incredibly hard. It can be both physically and emotionally tiring. When they are not moving heavy boxes and bags, they are listening to people in crisis. It’s clear that for some people having somebody to talk to is almost as important as the food they are collecting.
Number of parcels issued: 173
A woman who works 30 hours a week was moved on to universal credit from tax credits in March. She still hasn’t had her first payment but has received an advance. She decided to use this to cover some of her rent because she was under pressure from her landlord – now there is nothing left. She’s come to the food bank with her manager from work because she needs some support.
She says she’s never been in such a bad position, even when she was unemployed. “The bills are adding up and I’ve been charged by the bank for unpaid direct debits. I broke down yesterday because I’m just so embarrassed by it all.”
Number of parcels issued: 170
A young mother comes in who waited the standard five weeks for her first universal credit payment but, when she received it, it was £120 less than she’d been told. She’s been without electricity for a week and is having to walk to a friend’s house to do her cooking every day.
So many people here have spent years living on the edge of poverty, just managing to survive. Often it’s only a minor change to their circumstances that pushes them over the edge. They then face a huge battle to get back to where they were before.
Number of parcels issued: 118
Many of the parents are starting to worry about the summer holidays. Before they even think about the cost of entertaining their children for six long weeks, there is the matter of feeding them. Most rely on free school lunches for the one hot meal their children will receive each day.
The woman who came in earlier in the year because she was sleeping in a car with her daughter is now working part time and renting a small house. She has just received her first universal credit payment and used some of it to buy a trolley-load of donations for the food bank.
Number of parcels issued: 184
It’s the summer holidays and as well as helping out at the food bank, some staff are running local lunch clubs. They provide a meal for the whole family and lots of activities for the children. The groups are run separately from the food bank and because they do not open every day the families in urgent need still come here.
Some people are worried about the cost of school uniforms and shoes, especially those who have children moving up to secondary school. One woman is upset because she’d managed to buy everything her daughter needed but her PE bag has just broken and she doesn’t have the money to replace it. After speaking to her, a volunteer quickly pops out and buys one to give to her.
Number of parcels issued: 137
There is nowhere near enough recognition for the amazing work the staff and volunteers of food banks do. I’ve been coming here for more than nine months now and I’ve seen the dedication and care that goes into offering the type of support the staff provide. They have stepped in where the state has failed. The number of people coming in has fluctuated over the last few months. Nobody can say for definite why – but it’s still not unusual for people to be queueing to get in. One morning I arrive half an hour before opening and there are already two women with small babies and another in a wheelchair waiting outside.
Number of parcels issued: 140
A lot of people who come in have debt problems. One man, who was previously street homeless, is terrified about losing his home because of unpaid bills. He would usually be referred to the national debt charity, CAP, but food bank staff have been told they are not taking any new clients until February next year because they are so busy. A local debt service is also unable to take on anyone new at the moment. Another asks if they can call him later in the week to talk through his options but as he doesn’t have a phone that’s not possible. After a volunteer spends an hour calling around different places, a home visit is finally arranged for him.
Being able to signpost people to other services is vital but in Northamptonshire, like other areas, many organisations are facing cuts to funding. To help meet the need, monthly advice clinics are held at the food bank by a community law group, the local Labour party candidate, Sally Keeble, and a mental health charity. There is always a queue of people waiting for their help.
Number of parcels issued: 165
A recent Trussell Trust report shows that two-thirds of people who have used a food bank have had problems with the benefit system in the last year. This comes as no surprise to people here. It’s been clear to me in the time that I have been coming that, alongside low pay, benefit issues are the leading cause for people needing food handouts.
A woman with MS, osteoarthritis and mental health problems comes in happily waving a letter in her hand. She saw her money drop significantly when she was moved from disability living allowance to personal independence payments and waited more than 30 weeks for her appeal against this to be heard at a tribunal. During that time she has regularly received emergency food and sanitary products. She’s just found out that her case was successful and wants to show staff the decision from the court.
A social worker comes in to collect a parcel for a man with mental health problems. She says that he hasn’t eaten properly for four days and has been scavenging through bins to feed himself.
Number of parcels issued: 131
Tesco has held a food bank collection in its local store. It’s a huge help at this time of year when supplies can run low but it also means a lot of extra work for the volunteers. They worked out a rota so that there were always representatives at the supermarket to thank people for their donations. Others helped to transport and sort through the boxes of goods received.
Piles of advent calendars are ready to be handed out and boxes of mince pies and chocolates are stacked high. Staff and volunteers have collected small gifts to give out and people can help themselves to wrapping paper, sellotape and cards.
The general election is just over a week away and despite Labour’s pledges to tackle food poverty there has been very little national debate on the issue. Northampton is not a particularly deprived town yet almost 14,000 children are living in poverty here. There was much talk after the EU referendum about the people “left behind” but the people I’ve met at the food bank over the last year haven’t simply been left behind, they’ve been abandoned.