Have you ever sat in a pitch-black cinema full of people and wept? Not in the way your dad awkwardly tears up on the sofa during Toy Story 3, but actual sobbing in a packed screening as the credits roll, just before the lights come up?
It’s happened to me once. It was during Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, which includes a heartbreaking scene at a food bank. I had never felt such tangible sadness while watching something, and as soon as the film ended, I immediately walked out and set up a monthly donation to the Trussell Trust.
The Trussell Trust is a UK charity, founded in 1997, that provides emergency food for those who can’t afford to eat. The 428 banks across the country provide basic sustenance (think baked beans, tea, and tinned pies) for those most in need, throughout the year, funded entirely by donations—11,175 tonnes of food in 2016, to be precise. While the usage of food banks has been steadily increasing since the charity’s inception, one period every year is worse than others: Christmas.
It’s ironic that, at the time when our world becomes centred around how much we can physically eat and drink without dying, food banks are most in demand. As every shop window, every TV advert, every aspirational Instagram post becomes soaked in gorgeous, alluring food, I wanted to find out what it means to be eating baked beans on toast on Christmas Day.
Which is why I’ve come to Queens Road Baptist Church in Coventry, just as a freezing fog covers most of the Midlands and forces the temperatures down close to zero. Situated next to an A-road in the city centre, the church houses the busiest food bank in the UK and has been feeding the city’s most vulnerable for the last seven years.
Although most people have probably never visited Coventry (why would you?), I’m familiar with the area—in the 1950s, my family moved to the city from Italy to find work, and still live here today. However, the days of a burgeoning work market are gone: it is currently estimated that 20 percent of Coventry’s residents live on the breadline.
Arriving on this freezing Monday morning, the warmth of Queens Road is a welcome respite. Despite food banks being an emergency resource for people in crisis, the atmosphere here is warm: I can smell a bacon sandwich cooking from the cafe, toddlers are playing in a creche, and I’m offered tea by three different people.
It’s over this tea that any feelings of hope are grounded back in reality. While, unusually, the number of people using the Queens Road food bank has been declining, the past year was one of the worst to date.
“What's happening is that we're now seeing people really start to struggle,” Hugh McNeill, the food bank manager for Queens Road, tells me. “We’ve seen a real stagnation within the economy—wages and benefits haven't grown at all and as a consequence, there's a real financial squeeze.”
“Food prices have increased. Electricity prices have increased. Rent prices have increased. All the things that people have to pay are going up, but what they're getting is going down,” he continues. “I think what's happening is that we're now seeing people really start to struggle. This has been the year where it's really started to bite.”
The figures reflect this. Between April and September of this year, there was a 27 percent increase in the number of food parcels given out by Queens Road, compared to the year before, according to data sent to me by the Trussell Trust. This isn’t just happening in Coventry—a combination of benefit cuts and the new, poorly introduced Universal Credit system has meant the number of people relying on food banks overall has increased by 97.5 percent since 2011.
The generosity of those who donate and volunteer at food banks might make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it would be wrong to see their existence as anything other than an embarrassing indictment of the Government's failure to support the vulnerable. From more inconspicuous ways of stopping people from claiming benefits—such as cuts to Citizens Advice funding and Legal Aid—to refusing to increase benefits in line with inflation, the last eight years of Conservative rule have been disastrous for Britain’s lowest earners.
“I heard of one food bank that had an 84 percent increase in food bank use, simply because of things that are happening because of Universal Credit,” McNeill tells me. “It's like a perfect storm.”
The weeks leading up to Christmas add further strain, due to lower temperatures and the pressure that many feel to have a well-stocked kitchen. This time of year is the busiest for Queens Road.
“In December, we always see an increase,” McNeill tells me. “Normally, we are feeding about 1,400 people a month in Coventry, that would creep up to 1,600 or 1,800 the four weeks before Christmas.”
Even with increased demand, a Christmas meal for those turning to a food bank is hardly traditional.
“They would be hard pushed to get [a Christmas dinner],” says McNeill. “We don't give turkeys. We don't give ham. We don't give fresh meat. We're an emergency food provision.”
I try to ask what a Christmas dinner could look like for someone using a food bank.
"It would be pretty … ” McNeill begins, then stops.
“The food bank can only give out what we can,” he explains. “It's nothing fancy. All we can do is give what we get given. This time of year can be very lonely and depressing."
After our talk, McNeill gives me a tour of the centre’s food supplies. In a small, purpose-built extension, there are mountains of non-perishable foods: tinned vegetables and meats, UHT milk, biscuits, pasta, cereal, soups, sugar, pasta sauces, coffee, tea, and juice. Right at the back, there are empty containers intended to be filled with fresh fruit or vegetables, but these are only available if a donation from a major distributor has arrived. There are portions of frozen meat and fish in two large freezers supplied by the church. I also spot some mince pies.
One of the volunteers wears a Christmas hat as he distributes the donated foods into plastic crates ready to be given out. After watching the process a few times, I know how to finish McNeill’s sentence: Christmas would be pretty bleak for those using a food bank.
This sentiment is expressed by the people I talk to who are using the food bank today. One of these people, Kaz, an incredibly sweet woman in her late 30s, tells me that she is here after her benefits were cut.
In my conversation with McNeill, he told me that, “the statistics are, if you're a single mother, you have a disability, or you have a mental health issue, at some stage, you'll probably find yourself at a food bank.” As a single mother with learning difficulties, Kaz’s existence here feels somewhat like a sad, statistical inevitability.
“This is my third time here,” she tells me. “My benefits were cut down. I wasn't able to go shopping and money has been tight. If we do go shopping it's small amounts that I can afford, so I have to budget with what I've got.”
Kaz’s dad is accompanying her at the food bank today, and informs me that this budget is £20 a week.
“Sometimes it was less than that!” she says, correcting him. “I've got me, my son, and my cat to feed.”
I ask Kaz what her cat’s name is, and what she likes to eat.
“It’s Angela,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I like pasta and hot food! I like chicken and turkey or ham.”
Although Kaz is upbeat about her situation, the vast majority of people at Queens Road don’t share her positivity, and look ashamed when I ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. One man who does agree to speak with me is Barry, who wanders over as he waits for his food parcel. I tell him my name, and he looks shocked.
“Ruby? Your name’s Ruby?” he says. “That was the name of my nan. My nan passed away last year, and she was like my mum.”
Barry explains that he began using the food bank after difficulties with finding employment.
“Circumstances have been really hard and I've been on the dole,” he says. “Obviously, because of my criminal record for burglary, it's hard to get jobs.”
When I find out that Barry will be using the food he picked up today over the festive period, I wonder what his Christmas Day will look like.
“It’ll be miserable,” he says. “It's just another day.”
It’s clear how much food banks can contribute to the lives of those in difficulty.
“The food bank has been very helpful,” Barry adds, on a more positive note. “They deserve top marks here. They're very nice people, one of the best food banks I've been to.”
After my tour of Queens Road and the conversations with Kaz and Barry, it’s time for me to leave. I ask McNeill one final question before heading back out into the cold. How did he get into the role?
“I started working for the food bank four years ago, I came as a volunteer,” he tells me, as begin to pack up my notebook.
He goes on: “I should back track and say I came as a food bank user.”
I put my notebook back down. “I had a business that failed and closed,” he explains.
I’m shocked that one bad business decision could plunge someone into this level of poverty.
“We lost our home. We had a restaurant and when it closed it took everything, so I found myself in January 2014 at a food bank,” McNeill continues.
I try to disguise the rising tears in my throat. I must, er, be tired.
“It was being able to see that there are people out there that want to help you that gets you back on your feet.”