Gill Watson, former chef and food activist, recently published a blog post which rapidly went viral. Her efforts to help a starving young man make for powerful and upsetting reading. They’re an indictment of some aspects of the current foodbank system and the austerity policies that have seen foodbank use skyrocket. Gill’s website is here.
I spoke to Gill to find out more about her work. A frank, engaging person, Gill’s work has done enormous good, possibly more than some of the official bodies supposed to be tackling the problem. Her work and the experiences of those she tries to help are an upfront, unvarnished account of life at the bottom.
Welcome to Foodbank Britain.
We discussed the official statistics on foodbank use, statistics that, she says, only take into account the business done by the Trussell Trust. They don’t include figures from local and independent foodbanks. According to Gill, the Trust’s statistics account for less than one-eighth of total foodbank use, indicating the problem is infinitely worse than the already depressing statistics the Trust provides. That in itself should be a wake-up call.
Gill’s own efforts came as a result of seeing people starving on low wages, slashed benefits, benefit sanctions and other elements of Tory austerity policy. In Theresa May’s very comfortable, very well-heeled view we’re ‘all in it together’ and we should merely tighten our belts, keep calm and carry on. It’s simply a matter of keeping things strong and stable.
It’s hard to keep calm when you’re starving, even harder to carry on. It’s not easy to feel strong and stable when you haven’t eaten for days, either. The only good news is that tightening your belt becomes easier the longer you starve.
While the average Tory might not be starving, a great many people are.
Gill wasn’t happy with the way some foodbanks are run, with more spent on administration and expenses than feeding people. Locally, the Public Health Department only refers people for up to two parcels a year, each intended to last three days.
Leaving only the small problem of the other 359.
Also, according to Gill, the quality of the food hasn’t always been what it should be. She described one local family of two parents and three children getting a parcel containing only £3.12 worth of food from an organisation being given £26 per parcel. Not much for a family of five.
Some of the food was also rotten, including a small bag of potatoes leaking fluid and turning green. A half-dozen tomatoes, also rotting. As Watson described it, it was as though some foodbanks are “profiting from poverty.” Which raises a question:
If a foodbank is funded out of the public purse, the taxpayers are investors. If so little actually gets to those in need, what about the rest? Does just shy of £23 magically disappear? Don’t taxpayers, as investors, have a right to know where it goes and precisely why so little reaches those its supposed to?
Her response was to collect food and donations to set up her own operation, to show it could be done differently and better. Rather than embarrass people and put them off seeking help, she didn’t ask clients for personal details or keep statistics.
Living in poverty is embarrassing enough, being heavily scrutinised while doing so doesn’t make seeking help any easier. There’s also a risk of official bodies intervening in people’s lives if they’re seen as not coping. All in all, a long list of disincentives even to the most desperate, which foodbank users often are.
As she put it “I started it to show the system was f*cked.” It was a purely voluntary effort without salaries, offices, excessive administration or all the expenses that seem to eat up so much charitable funding.
The food hut provided over 700 meals one Christmas, relying on financial donations and collecting waste food from in-store bins at the local branch of Lidl. Supermarkets discard huge amounts of perfectly usable food every day. Food that could feed the starving rather than be dumped with bleach poured over it to make it inedible. Fareshare also helped, providing fruit and veg from the Manchester wholesale market.
As the operation grew in size and scope she was asked to speak at local events and provide information to local authorities. That information was used to justify further cuts in services because her voluntary operation was taking up some of the slack. While cutting those services, local officials also had the gall to use her efforts as a means to justify those cuts.
At least until, in the space of a week, the local charity helping with financial matters ceased doing so. Business had simply become too brisk. There were too many people needing too much help. A new manager at Lidl also began hiding waste food so Gill and her volunteers couldn’t collect it.
Things came to a head when Gill tried to deliver eighteen boxes of usable food to the local Jobcentre. It was a Thursday, sanctions day, when people visit Jobcentres to be told they’ll get nothing for the duration of their sanction. Gill already knew the Jobcentre wouldn’t accept the donation, but she wanted an official refusal.
She got one. Camping outside the Jobcentre in freezing temperatures and perpetual drizzle, Gill and her volunteers offered help to those who needed it. At one point a Jobcentre worker, sent there on workfare under threat of sanction, actually came out and asked for a food parcel. A manager also came out telling Gill privately that she supported Gill’s work.
Even some of those administering austerity are suffering under it. This while being pressured from above to deliver more sanctions and meet more targets. Targets the DWP claimed not to have until they were leaked into the public domain.
They work with a constant unspoken threat of finding themselves visiting a Jobcentre (and probably a foodbank) if they don’t deliver what DWP bosses want. The attitude of those higher up the DWP food chain seems to be ‘well, you see desperate, starving, homeless people sit at your desk every day. You can deliver what we want or become one of them.’
Gill recently ended her involvement in the food hut. She told me it was “a really difficult decision because I had all these people who were starving.” It had, however started to become “something it was never supposed to be.” Even now she still gets former clients asking her where to go for emergency food supplies.
She’s equally trenchant about public attitudes towards the poor and dispossessed. “People need to personally be involved,” she says. If the poor and homeless are seemingly invisible it’s because, to Gill, “these people are invisible because people choose to make them so. They don’t want to see them because it makes them feel uncomfortable about their own lives.”
A Labour supporter, Gill is actively involved in the party’s election campaign. She doesn’t see Corbyn as an evil Red unlike much of the mainstream media. She’s scathing of Tory austerity, noting that comforts for those at society’s top aren’t nearly as austere as for those trying to survive at the bottom. She’s also determined to do something about that.
I could have talked to Gill for hours. She’s warm, passionate, engaging and cares deeply for those many others dismiss as worthless rather than help. But, with time pressing, our talk had to end. As Gill put it, “I’m going to have to shoot off as I have to go and feed people.”
This is what the Tories are inflicting. They’ll continue for as long as they’re in power. They also recently refused to rule out EVEN MORE welfare cuts.
When you’re casting your vote, think about that.