I remember the annual Harvest festival assembly at school. We used to make up boxes of food, usually in a shoe box. Back then (and I am talking about the 1960’s here folks) there were not the big supermarkets and all the brands we have now. I think my box may have had a couple of tins of vegetables and some spam or corned beef. And always some fresh vegetables that my grandad dug out of the garden.
We were told the food was going to the old people who were poor. I have a vague recollection of visiting houses with a teacher to hand over this parcel. Were they poor? I didn’t know any poor people, my nan was ‘old’ but she wasn’t poor, we always ate well, as did all the other old people I knew then. I was about 8 years old, what did I know?
We lived in a tiny council house and my grandfather worked for the corporation as a painter. Nan ran the house, my mother had various jobs, including cleaning and helping in a halfway house for young people in care. My aunt and uncle, who also lived there had ‘good’ jobs in The Civil Service and I expect they paid ‘keep’. Five adults, two children, a cat and a dog (Puss and Doggy) in a two bedroom, one boxroom house. We had no car. I had one pair of shoes and some school pumps that were only replaced when I had grown out of them. Mom made most of my clothes. When I went to secondary school the duffle coat I had been bought was too big for me as it had to last the whole five years I was there. Nan did the weekly wash in an electic tub and a hand wringer. The toilet was outside the house.
There was money coming into the house, as there were four wage earners. I am pretty sure that Nan did a lot of financial juggling and scrimping though. We ate well. I was on free school dinners as was my brother. Nan made a 25 shilling (£1.25) leg of lamb last a week. The bread and milkman delivered to the house as did the local shop. I had to drop the list into the butcher (our corner shop) on the way to the shop, and the box of food found its way to the kitchen table by the end of the day. Nan settled up with them weekly when Grandad handed over his pay packet.
We didn’t have a car. We walked everywhere and used a bus for special trips at Christmas into town (Birmingham) or to Bearwood for the market to buy fresh food. Grandad left the house at about 6 am every day to get the first bus to work.
It was not untill I went to Grammar school that I realised that maybe we were not as well off as a lot of others. While many of my new school friends also lived in social housing, some lived in semi and detached houses. They had colour tellies. And a car. My closest friend at school had a pony. Credit to my school, my family and my friends, I never felt disadvantaged or poor. I guess, having an aunt who lived in a big house with a field at the back and two brand new motors every year, I had no sense of rich and poor. She was family and just lived in a different sort of house. Hey, before my Dad did a bunk, I had lived in a house with a swimming pool in the back garden, Auntie took us off to share caravans and houses in Tenby or Teignmouth every summer. I was just a kid growing up in an extended family that was full of love and fun.
And now I know how lucky I was. To be fed well, and live in a family that cared for each other.
I have spent the majority of my working week collecting food donations from local schools. I work for a charity who manages Smethwick Foodbank, a Trussell Trust foodbank. These schools have had Harvest Festival assemblies and the food collected is being donated to foodbank.
As I was loading up my car boot yesterday the young infants were helping and asking where the food was going. Many of them thought it was going to poor people in another country. That we were taking it on a plane. I told them that we gave the food to people from this country as there were people, in England, that didn’t have enough money to buy food for their families. So far this week I have collected the equivalent of 10 supermarket trolley loads of food. About 800 kg.
There have been times in the past 30 odd years where my husband and I have been short of money. Very short, of money, trying to pay a mortgage and feed ourselves and two children after 18 months of living on benefits. Yes me, who went to a grammar school and university. Me, who has worked for one of the biggest accountancy firms in the country. Yes me, whose husband was once a national manager for a DIY company, a Marketing Manager for a house builder. We were once down to our last pound and bought a lottery scratch card with it. That was pretty feckless of us wasn’t it? That scratch card fed the family for a week as I won £50. It was the last one I ever bought.
Yet I never needed to go to a foodbank. Not because we had enough money living on benefits, we didn’t. We didn’t have a car. We had pre payment gas and electric meters. The children had free school meals and I got a uniform grant. I didn’t need to go to foodbank because I had credit cards. I bought food on credit. I borrowed money from my mother, and mother in law. I was worried sick we would lose the house and be homeless on more than one occasion. The heating was turned off and we had duvets on the sofa to keep us warm.
It wasn’t pleasant to have to borrow money from my mom. It was not pleasant to have a school secretary humiliate me when I asked for the form for free school meals. And it has been tough paying back the debt over the years. Because it wasn’t just once that we were out of work. I stopped counting the times we were made redundant after it happened to us seven times. But you never forget the interviews at the Job Centre, the countless forms you have to complete and the waiting to sign on. It was horrible then. It is worse now. Now Job Centre staff have the power of ‘sanctions’ to threaten you with. And some of them enjoy that power a bit too much.
And so I know that when someone comes to a foodbank , I want to make it a pleasant experience as it possibly can be. I want to make sure they have all they need to feed themselves and their family. I want to make sure they have someone they can talk to. And if they need more than food, such as toilet roll, toothpaste and soap, that we can offer it. What I want at Smethwick Foodbank is to restore dignity and revive hope.
And now, finally, harvest festival collections make sense to me. Because I know that the food we give out at foodbank is needed. And that every tin of beans, packet of rice, and litre of milk donated at every harvest festival will go to someone who is in crisis.
And I would love to know what you think about foodbanks and if we need to be offering more than just food there.