“There’s nothing to be ashamed, everyone needs a little bit of help sometimes.” These were the words I said to a quiet and withdrawn 14-year-old year girl sat in my office, when sitting in people’s offices was still allowed.
She had come in with her father to collect a food bank voucher. By this point she had already been out of school for a week. Daughter to a single dad who suffers from multiple disabilities both mental and physical, I asked her how she was going to keep in touch with her friends and keep up with her schoolwork. I said, with all my privileged assumption, “I guess you can chat on the phone and on WhatsApp?” She shuffled uncomfortably looking at her feet not wanting to embarrass me; she didn’t have a phone.
Her dad assured me she could do schoolwork online on a laptop provided by the school, and he could make a hotspot on his phone to get internet access. It costs more to be poor, and in a time of isolation lots of those costs will increase. “She wants to be a doctor,” her dad told me proudly, raising the first smile on this quiet child’s face.
I could tell a hundred stories each week similar to this one. Every week, families, the disabled, the elderly, the recovering and the quietly embarrassed come to my office to get a voucher in order just to feed themselves. Food banks have, for some time now, become not a last resort for the absolute down and out they are practically integral part of our social security system. When the state turned its back, charities refused to let people go without.
In this time of crisis everyone in the country has suddenly found out exactly what people reliant on welfare have been expected to live on. Just £94 pounds a week statutory sick pay, or £72 universal credit, is now gasped at by the nation.
People who have never needed food banks before now call my office and ask if I know where they could get a food parcel delivered. Distraught adult children send emails from abroad about their elderly parents who live in my area, they need someone to go over with some food. A jobbing plumber laid off, swallows his pride on the phone and tells me he doesn’t think he has enough to get to the end of the month.
It is now finally true that we are all in this together.
Thanks to those who always knew support was needed we have a framework to cope, but it still needs your support. That’s why The Independent is calling for its readers to do whatever they can to help keep Britain’s food banks stocked and running during this unique crisis in our communities.
I have always been grateful for the brilliant churches, mosques, community centres and groups in my area who saw a crisis long ago and rolled up their sleeves to get on with helping. Every single time I have done a call out to my constituents to donate food, or nappies, or sanitary towels and cleaning products, I have ended up with van loads of love and generosity.
That’s why I’m adding my voice today, too. People are good and they want to help and, now more than ever, our network of food banks and baby banks are going to need it.
Yes, the government has put in place various support measures. I will not look a gift horse in the mouth – I am relieved by so many of them – but when my constituents find themselves number 6,450 in the queue to speak to the benefits team, they panic. We are going to need the food banks to fill that gap as the gap that they used to fill grows into a widening valley.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley