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Accepting charity is hard: using a food club in the UK

I went to a food club recently. A food club is where you pay a small-ish amount of money for food that is about to go out-of-date, or already has gone out-of-date, or is past its best, or has some other fault. Or it’s been donated by a nice person, in which case it might be quality food that actually has a day or two left before you have to eat it.

Unlike foodbanks, you don’t have to be referred to go there, and there isn’t a yearly limit on attendance. So it’s low cost food for people who are on long-term low incomes. Foodbanks are for a crisis; the acute emergency. Food clubs are for chronic poverty where you just don’t have enough money for basic needs, and won’t for a long time to come.

This particular chain/franchise/network is not my preferred model. My preferred model is the one where the food is indoors on shelves, like a corner shop, and you can choose what you have. Food is colour-coded red, yellow or green, with limits on the number of items of each you can take. You may choose, say, three red, five yellow, and as many green as you like – though in practice, the number of greens you take is limited by how much you can consume before the use-by date, or how much space you’ve got for freezing.

The model of the food club I went to took the foodbank approach of handing out parcels, and you don’t get any say in what is in them. If you don’t want something, you are encouraged to swap with someone else in the queue, but not to return the food to the pantry because they don’t want to have to get rid of it at the end of the day. I didn’t check my bags properly until I got home, and hadn’t read up on what to do with unwanted items, so I ended up with a lot of processed and sugary stuff that I just can’t eat without making my pain a whole lot worse.

The whole thing felt really weird. From the day before I went until a couple of days later, it hung on me like a weighted coat. It was such an uncomfortable feeling. It wasn’t that I felt embarrassed; it was more a heavy, nauseated, tearful feeling. I think of how I feel when I’ve had to give up doing something important to me, like work, due to illness – the sense of failure, grief and loss – and imagine just how awful it must be for mothers to turn to food clubs and feel that they have failed at that most basic of worthy tasks: being a mother.

When I got to where I thought I was meant to go for the food club, there were no signs anywhere about it. I hung around for a while, keeping an eye on what other people were doing to spot any indications of the club. Eventually I had to ask, which was embarrassing, to admit to a complete stranger that I was in need of charity. They were able to point me to a different place – not the place listed on the website – and there I found a queue of needy-looking people. I attached myself to them, and confirmed by asking that this was the queue for the food club, and the lady delivering the food was late.

Joining the queue felt like I had really labelled myself as one of the down-and-outs in society. Like me, a number of people there were using mobility scooter or other mobility aids. A number had that dry, aged look to their skin which had the effect of making them look like those people who look older than they really are. Compared to the people who walked past – nicely coiffed hair; shapely clothes for their shapely figures – it felt like we came from a different world. I wondered if those of us in the queue who had good skin and clean hair would be judged as not really poor and therefore ‘scrounging’ to be there at all; whilst those of us with dry skin and unwashed hair would be judged as only being poor because we had some wrong attitudes and behaviour.

I took notes on my phone as I waited for the food lady to arrive, wondering at the same time if people would judge me for the extravagance of having a phone. As though poor people don’t need to have contact with the outer world. Ironically, when my phone broke recently, I was unable to log-in to universal credit because they insist on sending a text or phonecall to verify logins, and that doesn’t work if you don’t have a phone!

Behind me, a child cried because he wanted to stay with mum, but mum was queuing for food and couldn’t manage the child and food bags when they did arrive. Mum and dad wanted the child to go home with dad. Dad made a point of telling the child that he’d had a long day at work and needed to go home. Perhaps he did this in part as an attempt to sandbag his own falling self-esteem: whatever we other people in the queue were like, he was poor despite work, not because of worklessness. Someone else commented how they used to run their own business, but they lost everything when it folded. I understand these desires to passively declare one’s own value to whoever is passing; to make sure it is known that we are not the feckless poor.

Eventually the van did arrive with the food bags. I thought the food would be taken into the hall outside which we were waiting, but no: it was handed out from the back of the van. I felt like a third-world refugee, waiting on the good will of our richer overlords to graciously hand us their leftovers and the things they didn’t want; and remnants that weren’t good enough for them but plenty good enough for the likes of us. Part of me wanted to leave, but I’d already been told by text that places were restricted, so if I left it would mean a wasted food parcel that someone else could have used. Places in the queue weren’t guaranteed each week, due to limited supply, so I couldn’t afford to leave this time in case next time I needed help I would be one of those who missed out. Regardless of how I felt, I needed to take what was available when I had the option, and not wait for a day when I felt emotionally stronger.

The queue slowly shortened as people were handed and paid for their food. I wondered what would have happened if I had attended during a short break in work, or before going to a work shift? There is no choice of when to collect the food, just a half-hour slot once a week. So you have to find a way to fit it in, but then if it is late coming, what if you can’t afford to wait but need to leave for work or jobcentre or to pick up a child? You can’t afford to buy food at normal prices, and can’t afford to wait for charitable food that is late coming.

The weather that day was beautiful: warm and sunny. But what if it had been raining, or cold, or stormy? Would people still have had to queue outside? I assume so, as if there were a facility for being indoors, there would be no reason not to open it on a sunny day, given that the facility would need to be booked ahead of time in order to be prepared if it was cold or wet. There is no humanity in making people wait outside, in whatever weather is thrown at them. And there’s no dignity in exposing people to the contempt and ridicule of whoever may pass by, or ‘outing’ them as poor and unable to manage to their neighbours.

Cognitively, I know that I am as good and valuable a member of society as anyone else. Emotionally, I felt like I and those I was with were the dregs of society, and being fed the dregs of society’s waste. We are the dustbin for the middle-class, eating up the food that they do not want because it is yellowed broccoli, or tough and stringy runner beans, or soggy rocket, or vinegary fruit salad, or dust-like cereal.

I feel like, once I’ve accepted charity, I know longer have the right to decide on my own spending. One of my siblings has a major birthday coming up; am I allowed to buy him a present? If I don’t, how do I explain that lack of love to him? I try not to eat much sugar, because it makes my pain worse, but there are several points in a day when I am sad and tired and weak and feeling like I just need a little lift – a single chocolate truffle; a nice chocolate biscuit – but is it okay to buy myself nice things like that when others might disapprove of how I spend the money freed up by their donation of an essential? Admittedly the food parcel came with lots of ‘treat’s; but they’re all highly processed, which is even worse than a more natural version of a biscuit or piece of chocolate.

The food parcel, when it came, was in some ways better and in some ways worse than I expected. Yes, there was a lot of vegetables and even a small amount of fruit. But the pears were over-ripe bruised; they all need to be eaten the same day, really. The potatoes were green and scabby, so wouldn’t last long in storage, and how many potatoes can be eaten in two or three days? The fruit salad was already a day out of date and tasted of vinegar as I ate it. The rocket was use-by that day, but rocket doesn’t freeze well without other ingredients such as olive oil, or parmesan cheese and pine nuts in a blender to make rocket pesto. The broccoli also needed to be eaten that day, but as I was already eating the rocket and lettuce and tomatoes; I’m didn’t really have space in my diet for broccoli too. And the runner beans, also to be eaten that day, were tough and stringy.

I blanched and froze the broccoli and runner beans, but I have a chronic illness and I was already exhausted just from going out to the food club on my mobility scooter. I was feeling physically weak, with rising pain levels, and my lymph glands were starting to swell in reaction to the exertion. To then have to cut up broccoli and runner beans, boil a pan of water, and fill a bowl with water and ice in order to cook and blanch the vegetables is too much for me. But I have to do it, because otherwise the food will be wasted.

There was a nice pizza included in the parcel, but it had to be eaten within two days and couldn't be frozen. I don’t normally eat pizza, because I try to eat healthy food from fresh ingredients rather than something processed and so carb-heavy and calorific with such little nutritional value. Then there was some plastic bread, plastic brioche, pitta bread, and two packs of sweet pancakes, for added carbs, on top of the many potatoes and the packet of new potatoes that also needed to be eaten that day. Oh, and a box of cereal, two malt loafs, and two packets of mini rolls.

Even without all the sweet stuff, there was too much carbohydrate in that for the vegetables, fruit and protein levels. I’d asked for a vegetarian option, as I happen to have meat in my freezer currently, so I got given 18 eggs – all to be eaten within the week. I give some to my sister, but she has too many eggs too.

I’d paid for three bags of food, because at £5 for one bag or £8.50 for three, it feels wrong to only get one bag. Ironically, we poor people are supposed to be terrible at money, so I suppose I should think nothing of paying £5 for one bag when an extra £3.50 gets two more. This experience tells me that I can’t get three bags, because there’s just too much stuff that all needs to be eaten that day, but it really grates on me to spend so much more for just one. I’m told that my poverty is my fault for not being thrifty, and then get charged over the odds to buy in the quantities appropriate to my single state!

We poor people get accused of poor eating habits, too. Yet 40% of the calories in that food parcel came from sweet, processed carbohydrates like cake and pancakes. 18% of the calories were from added sugar, compared to the WHO recommendation that no more than 5% of calories should come from sugar – and that includes sugar naturally found in fruit and veg. A further 17% of calories were from relatively less-sweet processed carbs, like cereal and pizza.

That’s food that I don’t get a choice over, other than to throw it away. My neighbours don’t want it: they’re trying to eat healthily on a low budget too, and excess cake and sweet stuff is not what they want. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it all, as I know no-one who actually wants it, and I can’t eat it without making my illness and pain worse. It seems that poor people are expected to be grateful for clearing up the excess food from middle-class people, and then we get blamed for the health impacts of eating all these excess sugars and processed food!

At church that week I found we were singing “my worth is not in pride or shame.” It’s a song I’ve often sung before, and one I really like. But it is a whole lot more impactful when, that week, you’ve been shamed by the need to turn to charity for a hand-out. I don’t want people patronisingly telling me that I’m still of worth despite being poor – something I know very well, thank you (though now I’ll probably get accused of excessive pride, because poor people should not have pride).

I want people to recognise my worth by working to ensure that I, and others like me, are not poor. I want them to fight alongside me for the right to justice, not charity; to have what I need as of right, not as of a rich person’s whim.

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