'We discuss food banks at school gates like it's normal'

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Six months after ex-Chancellor Sajid Javid announced an end to austerity, many families still rely on food banks to survive. The BBC's Chris Vallance has been spending time at a food bank in Oxford, hearing the stories of those who come seeking help.

She sits in a red plastic chair, at a table covered in a blue and white cloth and she cries. There are freshly cut daffodils in the window, fresh groceries in rows beside her and she is distraught. For 20 minutes, a volunteer at the Community Emergency Foodbank in Oxford listens to her story, takes some of the weight of it from her shoulders, and brings heavy sacks of groceries to carry home to her family.

In the food bank's little kitchen I speak to Mary, the volunteer who helped her. "It's a different story from every person but it's a similar sort of thing," she says. "Parents struggling to feed their families, teenagers that are always hungry, looking for food that isn't there. Sometimes you hear stories that they've been living on bread for a few days. They say, 'I feel a failure, a failure that I can't feed my children.'"

Every Tuesday and Friday between noon and 2pm the food bank sign is wheeled out, outside St Francis church in east Oxford, and people who cannot afford food walk in.

Sometimes they wait by the door, at other times they walk back and forth while they summon up the courage to enter. They are entitled to three visits a year but the food bank rarely turns people away. Sometimes it's the job centre or social services that gives them the necessary little blue referral form. Sometimes they are referred by a doctor who can tell they are not eating.

I have been visiting the food bank since mid-January, on and off, listening to people's stories.

In that time I've spoken to a nurse, a student librarian, former academic researchers, someone who gets ambulances ready to answer calls, a nursery teacher, a former primary school teacher, a funeral director, carers, a charity worker, someone on a zero-hours contract, a former chef, a painter and decorator, the recently destitute, the recently separated, the mentally ill, the physically ill and the homeless.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," said an unemployed woman who had an MA, an unfinished PhD in a technical field and a family to feed.

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Work begins before visitors cross the threshold. The hall is set up - folding tables are put out, red stacking chairs put around them, fresh fruit and veg arranged and sometimes cut flowers.

On the tables there are recipes (mostly of things to make with tins and packets) lists of other places to get help, and a little cardboard box with a rectangular hole in the top for suggestions. When I first arrived I saw a young woman carefully writing a note, hunched over the table as though she were doing homework. It read: "I am a single parent who is struggling with debt. Thank you so much."

The more time I have spent here, the more conscious I have become of the food I eat myself.

It has been humbling and frightening.

Life seems precarious - so many people inhabiting the narrow space between high rents and modest earnings.

The saying that we are all two pay cheques away from disaster rattles around my head.

The food bank was set up by Jane Benyon, 11 years ago. A former social worker, whose husband was once the Conservative MP for nearby Abingdon, Jane could tell from her work that there was hidden hunger in Oxford.

People are visiting the food bank in increasing numbers. Last year it helped 3,205 adults and children, up from 2,626 in 2018. It was in 2018 that Universal Credit was rolled out to single people in Oxfordshire, and research by Oxford University student Rosie Sourbut found that 39% of those visiting a food bank in the city in 2018/2019 cited delays with Universal Credit as one of the reasons.

"The concept was a good one but it's had some huge teething problems," Jane Benyon tells me. "And whether those will ever be resolved I'm not sure."

Paul Clarke a Baptist minister who is in charge of another branch of the Community Emergency Foodbank, a mile to the north of St Francis in the Oxford suburb of Barton, runs through a sheaf of blue referral forms. Even now, he says, most mention problems with Universal Credit. "It does feel to me we are relying on charitable organisations to sort these things out," he says.

The Oxford served by this branch of the food bank is not the one you see in tourist brochures. It is among the top tier of most deprived areas in England, according to the City Council.

"These estates they're massive, they're dotted around and they are a lot poorer than what you see in the centre," says Sharon. Drug dealers thrown off other estates sometimes end up in Barton, she says.

It's here that I meet Rachel, a mother of four, a grandmother, a former alcoholic and drug user who has turned her life around, gaining qualifications and studying for a while at university. Volunteers bring her bags of groceries and toiletries.

Rachel has lived in Barton for 18 years. She is softly spoken, but this cannot mask her anger.

She tells me some local women are so desperate they have to steal when they have their period. "Nicking sanitary towels, how embarrassing that people have to stoop that low," she says.

She tells me she usually doesn't eat breakfast. Her priority is feeding her children, two of whom are still under 18.

When I ask if Christmas was difficult, the pain of not having enough money to be able to give her kids what she would like to rises to the surface, and we have to pause the interview.

She says a lot of people on the estate are still embarrassed to use the food bank but others accept have become accustomed to it.

"We're supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world but we've got to use food banks. We're talking about food banks at the school gates like it's normal!"

The last time I visit the food bank, large parts of Italy are in lockdown because of coronavirus. When I enter I am told to cover my hands in sanitiser. Volunteers and everyone who visits get the same treatment.

The latest I hear from Jane Benyon is that the food bank is continuing to open and donations are holding up. The volunteers, many over 70, are bravely continuing to help all who visit. She worries that the food bank may face problems when, as seems likely, the elderly have to self-isolate.

Food banks are also expecting a big increase in demand if schools close, and children are no longer given free school meals.

At a small branch of the food bank in Littlemore, south Oxford, I meet a young freelance video editor, who asks to be called William. He's a big, gentle man, who speaks slowly and deliberately.

Like most freelancers, William's hours are variable. But if he's only paid the minimum he's entitled to under his contract, this barely covers the rent on a single room. He's passionate about his job and the career it promises, but it's feast or famine. In October he ran out of cash and didn't eat for four days.

Media caption,

William on how hard it is to go hungry

"I've never not eaten before, and it was terrible. After the first day you think this isn't so bad, and then you start to feel sick, like empty-inside sick. And then it just gets worse and worse, and you just feel so hollow inside."

He vowed he would never not eat again. So the next time he had a bad month he went to a job centre, where he started a benefits claim, and they in turn referred him to the food bank. Initially he felt ashamed, but knew he had no choice.

He says his parents would help but he doesn't want to ask. "I fought to get to where I am, I had to build contacts over the past few years just to get where I am now. I left on my own and that's something I'm proud of."

He tells me he is the first in his family to go to university.

A few weeks later, as we chat in a café, he tells me he has Asperger's Syndrome. It sounds like school was a significant struggle.

We go to his flat. His room is a small box, the bathroom and kitchen are shared. There's mould on the window frame and the floor is filthy, as there's no vacuum cleaner and William can't afford to buy one. It does get a bit lonely in the little room when the weather's bad, he tells me.

I understand William's commitment to his career and his independence, and I'm glad things are looking up for him. I'm glad he's found out he's entitled to benefits that should help cover the lean months. What has he learned from his experience, I ask later, over the phone. Don't be embarrassed - he says - go to a food bank if you need to.

The words "anxiety" and "depression" come up time and again when I speak to food bank visitors. Volunteers tell me how prevalent mental illness is among the users and emphasise the effect poverty can have on mental health. One, who also volunteers for a mental health charity, says she thinks it may affect children too. "Some of them are obviously aware that their mothers or fathers are distressed asking for food, and sometimes the child tries to protect the parent," she tells me.

It's impossible to guess who will walk through the door next. A man enters wearing a dark suit, though I don't at first notice just how dark it is. "I'm a funeral director, I'm the gentleman who wears the hat and tails, I'm the gentleman who walks in front of the hearse" he says.

Steve, as we'll call him, is the sole wage earner in his family. His wife is unwell and he has four children, two of whom live at home. He used to be in the armed services.

For some time, the difference between his monthly wages and the rent hasn't been enough to cover the remaining bills, even with a little bit of help from the benefits system, he tells me. His wife sometimes skips breakfast to help feed the children, he says.

He had always assumed that food banks were "literally for homeless people".

We talk for a while, but as we part he says there's one more thing - the family is likely to be evicted.

The landlord has given them notice because of rent arrears, and with nowhere else to go he has no choice but to wait for the bailiffs. The City Council is helping them find a home but it will be difficult to get somewhere they can afford. He worries it will be outside Oxford.

High rents are one of the reasons Oxford is regularly listed as one of Britain's least affordable cities.

"The pressure I'm under of course I'm going to crack at some point," he tells me. "But every day I get up and I've got to keep going."

Illustrations by Chris Vallance

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