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Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: ‘Easter just meant memories of things which are unaffordable now’

Easter was a difficult time for many guests at Earlsfield food bank, manager Charlotte White expains.

At our food bank last week, we gave out hundreds of Easter eggs. A Year 8 student at a local secondary school started a collection amongst his friends when he saw a post about our food bank on social media. In the end, he gathered together over 400, which meant we could give an Easter egg to every member of every family that came in.

This brought a lot of joy to our Thursday session – it was lovely to see so many smiles, especially on the children’s faces.

But at the same time, alongside the joy sparked by this act of generosity, many guests also talked about how challenging they found the Easter break and holidays.

“We are so limited in what we can do. All around there are these amazing Easter activities, but we can’t afford any of them,”said Jane, who has a five-year-old daughter and regularly attends the food bank. “Luckily my daughter is too young to really notice, but I feel so guilty when I look at social media, or the Reception WhatsApp group, and see what other people are doing with their children.

“It was the same at Christmas. When I got the email about Christmas Jumper day at school, I just thought ‘I have £30 for the rest of the month – I can’t afford to buy a jumper!’

“It’s also a lonely time. We’ve been invited to places with friends, but just can’t afford to take part. I don’t even have the bus fare to get there.”

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Less money to spend on going out also means more time spent inside, potentially alone. Mental health social worker Tom Pollard’s excellent report Pushed to the edge: Poverty, Food Banks and Mental Health (which included contributions from our food bank guests) highlighted the worry, anxiety and stress people feel about their circumstances.

As one interviewee said “I’ve just got nothing. I’m just bored, I find myself just sitting inside, getting downhearted.” And as a 53-year-old man put it: “My brain is on fire all the time, and that’s just through the pressure of life, really I can’t look beyond today. I’m treading water.”

This stress and anxiety can be compounded by comparison to others, as Jane mentioned, but also comparison to easier times gone by. We support so many first-time users at our food bank, and thinking back to last year’s Easter, when things weren’t so bad, is poignant and heartrending. The Easter weekend meant a special meal, seeing family in other parts of the country, outings with friends – things that are simply unaffordable and out of reach now.

For our working guests — of which there are an increasing number — the school holiday presents the additional challenge of childcare. There are very few options for free or subsidised activity holiday camps (many in this area have been cut), so the only option is to find help from family or friends, or simply not work and have no income for that week (many of our working guests are on zero-hour contracts – they only get paid for the hours they work and have no annual leave).

Additional stress and anxiety can also be triggered by worry over the future. With the huge and rapid cost-of-living increases, there is no room for optimism as the reality of stark poverty takes hold. One of our guests, called Pete, told me “This Easter week has been dire, but I’m trying to stay positive. I’m trying to sort out my gas and electricity as I’m so scared that I won’t be able to pay my bills.”

Another guest said “I don’t even know where I’ll be living next month. What can I be hopeful about?”

Day by day the inequalities in our society are getting worse, and celebrations like Easter — traditionally a joyful time full of hope and optimism — now inevitably reveal the struggling and suffering of those who have the least. We can’t address rapidly growing poverty through food bank use. As we said alongside hundreds of other independent food banks in our recent letter to the prime minister and chancellor – we are not the solution and are reaching breaking point. Alongside other members of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), we’re calling for cash first, income-based solutions that will reduce and eventually end the need for charitable food aid.

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurity. You can read their recent letter to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor here. You can read Tom Pollard’s report published in collaboration with IFAN and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation here. You can access IFAN’s cash first referral leaflets designed to help people facing money worries access advice and support here. Take action and write to your MP using IFAN’s template letter here.

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