In his tiny kitchen Lee is putting away the contents of two plastic bags. This is all he will eat for the next week, until he can make another visit to the food bank.
It’s mostly tins: oxtail soup, kidney beans, sweetcorn, ravioli, baked beans, tuna. There’s a couple of packets of biscuits and some out-of-date trifle sponge fingers; a box of chocolate-flavoured breakfast cereal, a litre of orange juice and a packet of pasta.
Fresh items are limited to whatever has been donated to the food bank that week so Lee unpacks of a packet of trimmed runner beans, three sunflower-seeded wholemeal rolls, and a red and a green chilli.
“Surely that won’t be enough,” I say, trying to imagine how these foodstuffs might be combined to make at least one meal a day for the next week. “Will you go hungry before next Monday?”
“And what about the cereal? Have you got any milk to go with it?”
Lee opens his fridge, pulling out a half empty litre carton. “Sometimes you get long life milk but I’ve got this.”
“And what happens when that’s finished?” I ask.
He digs deep into one of his jeans pockets. “I’ve got £1.50 to buy some more,” he says. “And that’s it.”
Lee and I met for the first time just two hours ago. Monday is food parcel voucher morning at the UCAN and I was vaguely hoping I might find someone who I could accompany to pick up their supplies.
The UCAN staff all know Lee. They have supported him for some months now, most recently Rosanne has helped him apply for a citizen card – which the UCAN has paid for – so he’ll have the photo ID he needs for agency work. And for the past three weeks, they’ve given him vouchers for the food bank in town.
Up until November last year Lee had been working nights as an order picker at a fruit and veg warehouse. He enjoyed the work. One night he was ill, couldn’t get himself out of bed, and didn’t show up for work.
The next night he was still unwell and telephoned his boss. Apparently he’d already been replaced and his boss reported back to the Jobcentre that he had quit. In turn, the Jobcentre registered Lee as ‘voluntarily unemployed’ and has suspended his benefits for six months.
“It’s been getting me down, really down,” he says as Vanessa and I explain the idea behind the As Rare as Rubies blog, “I’ve been to the GP.”
“Come in tomorrow morning,” says Vanessa, knowing that today’s first concern is the food bank that opens just once a week. “We’ll make a list of priorities. It’s employment day and we can ask Cath to sit down with you. You’ve already spoken to Citizens Advice haven’t you?”
Pretty much every service the UCAN has to offer is relevant to Lee just now – employment advice, confidence-boosting, debt management, mental health support – and Vanessa is determined, as she now tells him, to get a team of professionals around him. But first, the food bank.
…. continued in The most generous
… continued from A trip to the food bank
“How would you normally get there?” I ask in the car after Lee has accepted my offer of a lift.
“I’d walk. I’ve no money for bus fares. It’s only about half an hour, a bit more on the way back, uphill with the bags. Last time they offered me bus fare for the way home.”
“Have you got any income at all?”
“Nothing,” he says. “I applied for Local Welfare Provision and managed to get £50 in vouchers for both gas and electric that has to last until the beginning of May.”
“What happens if it runs out before then?” I ask. Lee shrugs.
Local Welfare Provision is a limited government fund administered by the local council and available to those facing ‘exceptional financial difficulties’.
It’s intended as a stop gap and people can make up to two applications in any one year. Applying for the payment, I’ve been told, is not easy. It’s either a lengthy telephone conversation or an online application, and neither, for many applicants, is straightforward.
“Take a right and then left at the lights. I’ve been to the Citizens Advice about making an appeal against the decision to sanction me,” he says. “They can also help me make a claim for a hardship payment.”
If successful Lee could, at best, get his sanctions overturned or at least get hardship payments to see him through. The payments are a percentage of his Jobseekers’ Allowance. He might get about £29 a week to live off.
“Do you have any family or friends who could help?” I ask.
“They’re all in the same situation,” he says, “No one’s got anything to spare.”
The Store House food bank, run by the Urban Outreach Christian charity looks busy enough although we don’t even get through the front door. One of the volunteers, stationed in the porch, checks Lee’s voucher but points out he should have brought his DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] letter, confirming his sanctions. No letter, no parcel.
“Come on, we can be up to your place and back in no time.” I say.
He’s embarrassed, he thinks he’s wasted my time. For me, it’s all part of the story and our refusal counters some of the criticism leveled at food banks that they are an easy touch, handing out food to anyone who wants it. Recipients have to be referred by one of the frontline agencies working closely with them and even then the blue voucher isn’t a magic ticket, documentation is often required to back it up.
Within half an hour we are back and the volunteers are apologetic. “No problem,” I say. “We totally understand.”
Inside volunteers signpost their customers to other Urban Outreach services as they drink tea and tuck into apple turnovers and raisin whirls, leftovers donated by the local Sainsbury’s.
Lee and I sit with Gaynor, one of the organisers, and I ask where their donations come from. The food, she says, comes from a number of different sources. Fareshare, the nationwide chain, provides outdated or wrongly labelled supermarket food that might otherwise be binned.
The charity’s own network of ‘Grub Tubs’ collect tins and non-perishable donations from the public. “There’s one at the UCAN, isn’t there? I’ve always thought that was a bit ironic.”
Gaynor smiles. “Those who have least are often the most generous,” she says.
There is so much talk of food banks right now. Some politicians are unwilling to acknowledge that their recent rise has anything to do with welfare reform changes. But, whatever the politics, it is clear that Gaynor and her colleagues are offering a vital safety net for those who have fallen the furthest.
Back at the UCAN, I recount my morning’s experiences and both Vanessa and Carl agree, there are lots of Lees around just now: individuals and families where every single pound is crucial in surviving the week.
And, they say, the Jobcentres are getting tougher. Claimants are being sanctioned for the smallest of misdemeanors. A missed appointment can result in a reduction in benefits that are already inadequate to meet basic food and fuel costs.
Lee is on my mind as I drive home. I think about all the things he won’t be able to do this week or next, or maybe for a few weeks yet.
It’s Monday and so it’s ‘spag bol’ for dinner. I cut up onions, peppers and chillis, and contemplate what Lee might be preparing for his meal tonight.