The Mount Street Day Centre tucked behind the Cinema and along from the Ford Repair shop is one of the places to see the face of modern poverty in the UK. Housed in two low slung buildings, one a pre-fab add-on to the former day centre, this place became home to The Bridgwater Foodbank in 2015. The original Foodbank was set up in the Northgate Enterprise Centre in 2013 but forced to move on to make room for a Tesco’s that never happened. In fact were it not for the offer of these buildings by Somerset County Council under the Community Asset Transfer Scheme (CAT), the Foodbank could have been as homeless as some of its clients.
And the only reason the day centre itself was preserved from demolition was because the proposed housing development fell foul of parking regulations.
Today, thanks to the hard work of a number of ordinary Bridgwater folk displaying ‘extra’ ordinary generosity, five years after its foundation, this Christmas the Foodbank is on a sustainable footing.
The £150,000 required to buy the buildings from the Somerset County Council and secure its future has been obtained, with grateful thanks to the EDF Mitigation fund as well as local donors. Thanks to the car park that goes with the property, which is leased out, an income of £8000 per year is generated, meaning all donations of time and money go solely toward relief rather than survival.
I am welcomed by the smiling face of larger than life Keith Barnard, who with his wife, Ann, and Phil Jarman, the dynamic manager (who I never saw stop to take a breath the whole time I was there) are the collective driving force of Bridgwater’s Foodbank.
“Hello Anthony, get your coat off, the incoming food donations are over there. Every sell by date needs checking. Any out of date tins or bags of rice etc are to be put aside. The ladies will show you where to stack.” With that Keith is off, alternately chivvying and joking with us workers. Apparently I need to watch out for Molly (very outspoken) as distinct from Mollie with an ‘ie’ (quiet). Gavin meantime is methodically going about his business placing food items on shelves with precision. Luckily, Jude, a former primary school teacher, comes to my rescue and explains the procedure. No tins to be stacked more than two high (danger when falling on feet). All food in date order: 2020 and 2021 below, 2019 at chest height ready for picking.
It is a discreet and unassuming building perhaps to soften the embarassment of those in need, and to remain out of sight for those of us who have not enough shame that Foodbanks exist in 21st century Britain. We are living at a time, it could be argued, when food has never been cheaper. But it’s not the price of food that causes Food poverty – it’s the other stuff – the rent, the high prices of gas, electricity, water, travel. Too often it is food that is the first item to go when a family cannot find enough for the rent.
Anyone who saw the 2016 Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ will remember the Foodbank scene in which Katie (played by Hayley Squires), a single mum sent to Newcastle from London struggling to feed her two children goes without food so that they may eat. When she reaches the Foodbank she is so hungry that she opens a can right there amongst the aisles, trying to hide her starvation while at the same time picking out tinned fruit with her fingers across the serrated edge of the can.
As I walk to Mount Street to do my little bit, my cheese toasty that I just had for lunch sticks in my throat as I try to imagine real hunger. Perhaps we all need to do a bit more imagining to find a bit more empathy.
Run by the Christian charity The Trussell Trust, Bridgwater’s Foodbank is one of 420 they support across the UK. We live in a country in which almost 500 homeless people died on streets or in shelters this year. And recently, as we read in the news, a homeless man died outside the House of Commons as some kind of symbolic act of rage against the system. But those who arrive on this doorstep are treated with dignity and called clients. They have been referred by a number of agencies – NHS, local churches, the Citizens Advice Bureau. Later I meet Alan McKechnie and David Melly of Grace Advocacy in the adjoining building – (yes, George Melly, the Jazz musician and wit, who often played Bridgwater Arts Centre was David’s late Uncle). We talk about the referring society. The broken system that appears content to pass the buck; that appears to think its job done so long as it has provided a referral. The point about the Foodbank is that the buck stops here. No more referrals. Instead Grace Advocacy accompanies those in need, helps them prepare their budgets, and will represent those on the breadline in their negotiations with authorities and landlords. Alan tells me of a City type who inspired him in his work. He had fallen into penury and despite all his education had found the system Byzantine. If this City banker was unable to negotiate the system how about those tense with need and without the benefit of a great education.
I talk to two particular clients whose names I have changed to preserve their dignity. Amanda (50) and Simon (54) agree to speak to me. Amanda used to work at a meat factory as did her husband who worked in kitchens and also later at Hinkley Point. He developed diabetes and considers himself blamed for getting it. The family is large. Five children in all, two of which have children too. Their house is rented from a local housing association and their rent is £399 per month for a three bedroom house in which they have lived for 20 years. Both are Bridgwater born and bred, and both appear well clothed and highly articulate. They have had to come to the Foodbank because of the six week gap as they were transferred from old style benefits to Universal Credit. Or, as Alan put it earlier, sent back down to the bottom rung of the ladder. With no income coming in, it was not long before they were in debt and could no longer pay the rent. But they appear to be two of the lucky ones. They spoke to their Housing Association and they have not been evicted. The Foodbank provides in their case the stop-gap to keep them fed and afloat until Universal Credit kicks in. But even so, until Amanda can find work, there is no chance to make up the debt. Simon is angry that Sedgemoor District Council recently found the money to award 36% pay rises and loan half a million pounds to Mercure Hotel group but appears less interested in the poor of the parish. Their wider family has been brilliant, Amanda says, ‘But I don’t want to go to them for help because they are in the same situation as I am.’ What Simon can’t understand is that out of the £399 per month (or £4788 per year) no one from the Housing Association will assist with needy repairs, damp, boiler issues, broken gutters. The same housing association, he says, are working with EDF to build new houses do not maintain the old which have families in them.
As I do my best to improve my work rate in shelf-stacking, a local vicar also assisting with the shelves, comes over and asks me who I am writing for. I say maybe the Labour Party website or Westover Web (a local blog run by Bridgwater Town Council leader, Brian Smedley). But I say I do not want to be political. I want to be truthful and just articulate what I am seeing. Their opinion, which was supported by the UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston’s, recent report on the UK, is that austerity was a policy. I am cautious as I do not want to demonise any political party because we get the government we deserve, don’t we? What I want to do is just tell the story of what it is like at Bridgwater Foodbank this Christmas. In lots of ways it is actually a story of real hope. Perhaps it is for all the wrong reasons, but the inescapable fact is that all the good folk who volunteer week in week out and deliver food relief to the poorest of the poor are as much a story about Britain today as the bad headlines.
I have a particular grouse all of my own. I believe austerity has been exacerbated by the lax way in which governments of every hue have allowed big business (especially global businesses) to so easily evade corporation tax by claiming domicile in other countries with low tax regimes, while enjoying the freedom and tolerance that this country brings. With less tax collected, naturally, there is less in the kitty for the common good. My beef with the present government and those that preceded it, is their acceptance of this situation. In that sense austerity was indeed a choice. If you want to come and examine its effects on a similar 24 families who availed themselves of the Foodbank between 1pm and 3.30pm this Friday before Christmas, then you should also visit this place.
Last night I watched the old Cary Grant movie ‘The Bishop’s Wife (1947)’ in which Grant plays an angel come back to earth to make the world a better place. At one point he says ‘You know these are lean years in the world. So many people need food, so many people need shelter.’ And later the much reformed Bishop refers to the ‘outstretched hand of tolerance’. Not much has changed in 71 years. But the battle must go on.
As for me, I don’t think I’ll ever pick up a tin of sardines or packet of spaghetti without first checking the date.