When I heard Dominic Raab say that studying Trussell Trust food bank data had made it clear to him that “the typical user of food banks is not someone who is languishing in poverty, it’s someone who has a cashflow problem episodically”, I immediately thought of Andrew.
I met Andrew a couple of years ago, when I was delivering a food bank parcel to his flat because he was too ill to come to the centre. Within the first two minutes I spent talking to him, it became clear he was struggling with multiple mental health issues and needed extra support. Instead he had fallen through the cracks in the system and his benefit payments had been stopped for six months. He couldn’t afford anything – electricity, gas, food. When I met him, he was five months into that six-month sanction, and the effect on his mental health and living situation was truly shocking.
He was a man on his knees. Imagine what being without any form of income for five months would do to you. Could any of us last without any money coming in for almost half a year?
I run Coventry Foodbank, which provided 15,333 of the 1.2 million three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by Trussell Trust food banks last year. The two main reasons for referral to Trussell Trust food banks across the UK in the last year were issues with a benefit payment (43% of referrals are due to a benefit delay or change) and low income (26% of referrals are because people in work or on benefits do not have enough money coming in to meet essential costs when something unexpected hits). Like every food bank across the country, I meet people every week who have been left without money for food because of a problem with a benefit payment they were told they would receive, or because they’re in insecure or low-paid work.
Sure, having no money to buy any food could be classed as a cashflow problem but to me and I’m sure many other food bank managers across the country, that phrase sounds like an understatement of just how serious people’s situations are. The term “cashflow problem” simply does not reflect the reality we see from the front line. If you do not have enough money to build up savings to fall back on, to create a financial buffer for when something unexpected such as redundancy or sickness hits or a benefit payment is delayed, then you are a lot more likely to fall into a sudden crisis which leaves you unable to afford food. That isn’t a cashflow problem. It’s a symptom of a structural issue that needs addressing.
There is no “typical user” of a food bank. Anybody can need a food bank’s help. The only thing that unites the people referred to us is that there’s no money for food, and there may not have been for days. Every week I meet people who turn to us when they have nowhere else to go for help, people coming to us as a last resort. I’ve spoken to working parents, people with long-term disabilities who cannot physically work, people who have been made redundant and never thought they would be in this situation. Furthermore, a third of the emergency food we provide goes to children – something often overlooked when people start talking about “typical food bank users”.
I would love to be put out of a job because there’s no need for a food bank in Coventry any more. But the truth is that I don’t see that happening any time soon. So we need to talk instead about how we get to a place where nobody finds themselves in a situation where they need a food bank.
Dominic, if you want to come and visit Coventry Foodbank to see why people are referred here, let me know. We’d love to have you down.