by Fiona Twycross
Members of the London Assembly visited Peckham foodbank this week. Fiona Twycross, Labour Londonwide Assembly Member, has written this guest post on her visit and her meetings with volunteers and clients for The food bankers.
Volunteers at the Peckham foodbank alongside Fiona Twycross, (centre), Labour Londonwide Assembly Member. Photo: Fiona Twycross.
If pictures are more powerful than words, then sometimes being face to face with someone prepared to tell their own story is more powerful than both.
Over the past few weeks in the course of carrying out the investigation I am leading for the London Assembly’s Health and Environment Committee I have read about, heard about and thought about the stigma clients feel. This meant that before we went on the visit to Peckham foodbank, I was quite clear that it probably wouldn’t be possible, or appropriate, for us (a group of five Assembly Members accompanied by a handful of GLA staff and a couple of journalists) to meet any of the foodbank’s clients.
So I was both surprised and moved to meet Carol a first time client of the foodbank. She told us she was embarrassed to be there. Her voice broke as she told us that she herself hadn’t eaten for two days and how the day before her son had had a choice of plain pasta or Weetabix. She is clearly a good mother and she knew that the food she could afford to buy on the maximum £20 a week she has to feed both of them is not the healthiest option for her or her son. However, she said that if she has £1.50 to spend on food and is given the choice between a bag of apples and a bag of frozen sausages, the bag of sausages wins as it will provide three days’ worth of meals. She said she couldn’t remember the last time she bought an apple.
The Citizen’s Advice Bureau has told me that it is simply not true that people on low income cannot, as a rule, budget effectively. People aren’t generally poor because they can’t manage money, they simply can’t manage to make inadequate money stretch far enough. They can probably make it stretch further than most people could imagine would be possible.
Carol’s story is a story of someone getting to the point where the money she has wouldn’t go far enough. She was well-informed and engaged. She knew – and was concerned about – the changes to benefits, the introduction of universal benefit next year. She told us about her friends in work who couldn’t make ends meet either. She told us it is tough out there. Rising fuel bills. A new text book for her son because the school said he wasn’t doing well in maths and she wanted him to succeed. Not luxuries but essential expenditure had brought her to crisis point that she didn’t have any food.
It is easy for policy makers to sit in rooms discussing how to resolve problems they – thankfully – often have no real direct experience of. It is not easy for someone to walk in to a food bank and then walk in to a room of politicians to tell them how they got there. Carol’s story in her own words brought home the issue to me – and to the other people in the room – in a more powerful way than a 1000 articles in journals could do.
For Carol, and for people like her, I am glad there are organisations that exist that will help her. Peckham foodbank provides emergency food aid to people referred to them by a range of organisations. Run by hugely committed volunteers who are the type of people you would want to meet in a crisis, it demonstrates a powerful community response to the issue of food poverty.
However, the central issue that needs to be addressed by politicians of all parties is how to address the underlying causes and prevent people needing to go to foodbanks in the first place. It is a scandal that increasing numbers of people reach this level of crisis in what is still one of the richest countries in the world.
Fiona Twycross is a Labour Londonwide Assembly Member. More information on the London Assembly investigation in to food poverty can be found at http://www.london.gov.uk/who-runs-london/the-london-assembly/assembly_investigation/food-poverty