UK

What it is like to rely on food banks?

Jack Monroe
Image caption It took Jack 11 weeks to receive housing benefit after quitting her job

After it is revealed that more than half a million people in the UK may rely on food banks, what is life like for those who use them?

Jack Monroe, 25, visited food banks in her hometown of Southend with her three-year-old son Jonny for six months after losing her job.

She had been working shifts in a fire service control room but could not find affordable childcare, meaning her son was having to spend many nights at the homes of various friends.

Ms Monroe's request for a more flexible shift pattern was rejected and her employers refused to hear her appeal due to an issue over the time taken to lodge it, leaving her with no choice but to resign.

Having become unemployed, it was then 11 weeks before the single mother began receiving housing benefit - and even then she says it was only because she enlisted the help of her local MP.

Ms Monroe says this was not due to ineligibility, but rather a slow bureaucratic process. The delay left her with significant financial problems and she began visiting food banks in November 2011.

'Pasta and beans'

She spent £10 a week on food, which brought her a can of kidney beans, a tin of tomatoes, pasta, rice, a loaf of bread, a few loose vegetables, pulses and occasionally a pot of herbs or spice as a "treat". She very rarely had any meat or fish.

To save money, Ms Monroe has not turned on the heating at her home since November 2012, despite the UK experiencing one of the coldest winters for some years.

She said: "We just wrapped up warm… There were a few days when I didn't take my coat off in the house."

Her son was walking around the house in two jumpers, she said.

While she and her son were attending a support group where single mothers could socialise while their children were in a creche, one of the workers noticed the pair were regularly going back for seconds and thirds of the free meal provided.

She asked Ms Monroe if she was ok and Ms Monroe eventually accepted the referral to a local food bank.

The food bank provided her with nappies and five items of food a week. She described it as "such a godsend", adding: "I don't know what I would have done without food banks."

However, Ms Monroe is concerned the government is not doing enough about the problem of food poverty, particularly while there are food banks to try and deal with the problem.

'Foot the bill'

"There seems to be an attitude of being happy to let someone else foot the bill," she said.

She thinks the government's cuts are exacerbating the problem - most of the people she knew from food banks had struggled with benefits delays, sanctions or changes in eligibility rules. But the government says its welfare reforms will serve to improve the lives of some of the poorest families.

Jack now works as a journalist for the Southend Echo after blogging about her situation.

She says she still struggles financially but no longer goes to food banks as her shifts do not often give her the time and she would feel "a bit disingenuous" as she believes there are other people in greater need. However, she is concerned about the future for people in a similar situation to herself.

"They are squeezing and squeezing until what is there left to cut?" she says.

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