I’m in my 40s and have two children, both of whom have autism. Five days a week, I volunteer at a local food bank. I’ve also been a food bank user. We live on universal credit, so I understand the pressures people who visit are under.
I’ve always managed, I’ve never felt poor, but it’s getting harder. When I opened my energy bill, I thought it was a mistake. It has gone from £66 to £95, and they expect it to go up to about £150. I can’t afford to visit my child at university; I can’t remember the last time I went out recreationally. This week, I had to spend more than usual on my bus pass so I could go and get my eyes checked, so now it means mostly eating food with reduced stickers on it. My washing machine is on its last legs, and I keep thinking “please don’t break”, because there isn’t money there to replace it. I’m frugal and I know how to make things stretch, but there’s only so far you can go.
When I was 19, I got pregnant and became a single parent. My second child was born prematurely and went through years of hospital checks; later both children, who are now in their late teens and 20s, were diagnosed with autism. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work, but I’ve never been able to find a job that would allow me to care for my children too. I took some courses at a local college a few years ago, hoping they would give me the chance to find a career, then the funding was stopped.
I add up everything as I go round the supermarket. I bought bread yesterday for 26p, the reduced price of a more expensive loaf that I’d never usually buy, so that was a bit of a treat. I’ll pick up a pack of loo roll and look at the cost per sheet – I never thought it would come down to doing maths about loo roll.
Then the washing powder is running out and there are no teabags, and suddenly you’ve spent £10 before you’ve bought anything to eat. I’ve got cash, but if it goes over by £2, I think, “Is there money on my card to put the rest on there?” You mentally prepare yourself for the till because you don’t want an embarrassing conversation – with a queue behind you.
Things used to go up by 5p or 10p, but now it’s 50p more, so it’s hard to budget. The first place I go to is the reduced section. I try to meal-plan but meals are often based on what’s yellow-stickered. I’m constantly making decisions and it’s tiring – checking other shops to see if I can get something cheaper, adding prices up to work out if I can afford something else, trying to remember what’s in the freezer. I don’t sleep particularly well.
The politicians don’t live in the real world. They say you can make a meal for 30p, but you can’t. Maybe if you include what I eat sometimes instead of dinner – a bowl of porridge, cooked in the microwave instead of on the hob to save money. I like porridge, but are politicians feeding their kids porridge instead of dinner?
Six years ago, I started volunteering with the Trussell Trust, in one of their food banks. Just this week, we have noticed a dramatic drop in donations. Meanwhile, the number of people coming through the door is higher, and it’s not the same type of people we used to have. Often people from social services pick up bags to take to clients who can’t get to us, and they’re usually wearing work lanyards. A woman turned up wearing an NHS lanyard, and I breezily said, “Are you picking it up for someone?” She said, “No, it’s for me.” I thought, I’ve got to change what I say, because now we’re getting people we didn’t get before.
I know what it feels like to use a food bank. In 2019, when my income support was switched to universal credit, I went without money for five weeks and I was given vouchers for the food bank. Because I volunteer there, I was able to make up my own bag, using the packing list. I felt guilty being able to choose the type of cereal I wanted, rather than just taking what I was given, like our other clients.
I also felt embarrassed and ashamed in front of my fellow volunteers, but nobody ever judged me. As a volunteer, I know we don’t judge. I say to clients now: I’ve had vouchers, I’ve been where you are and I know it’s difficult, but we’re here to help.