November 28, 2020

Half-term, hardship and heartbreak: one month in the life of a food-bank manager

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/nov/10/half-term-hardship-and-heartbreak-one-month-in-the-life-of-a-food-bank-manager

Thursday 1 October

Every morning at the Welcome Centre in Huddersfield goes like this. Ellie Coteau lets herself in at 8.45 and makes her way to the kitchen, for a cup of tea. She chats to her deputy, Mike Bristow, then heads to her desk to turn on her computer and check the referral list for that day.

Coteau was born and raised in Huddersfield. She left to go to Cambridge University, but while her peers went into lucrative jobs in finance, law and consultancy after graduating, Coteau came home to West Yorkshire. The 32-year-old mother-to-be – Coteau is seven months pregnant with her first child – has the empathic air of a community midwife, coupled with the brisk efficiency of a chief executive. “As corny as it sounds, it has always been important for me to give something back,” she says.

The Welcome Centre is one of the largest independent food banks in the north of England, and a member of the Independent Food Aid Network UK, a collective of independent food banks across the country. Coteau’s team of six salaried staff and 120 volunteers are based at two sites: a walk-in centre in central Huddersfield, and a warehouse on the outskirts of the town, where the food bank stores extra supplies. Huddersfield is an ethnically and socially diverse area, and Coteau’s team supports anyone from 18-year-old care leavers to working families, women fleeing domestic violence, and asylum seekers.

The centre itself is a warren of turquoise-painted rooms and narrow corridors. Every corridor and store cupboard is crammed with crates and clear storage baskets. There are fridges everywhere, too, bearing notices such as “bread”, “butter” or “Nando’s”. (Nando’s is a corporate donor; the fridge is full of frozen chicken. When you open it, the smell of peri-peri is overwhelming.)

There are crates of sanitary towels and tampons, nappies and toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo (although never enough men’s razors and shaving foam, because not many people think to donate them – or conditioner, which is seen as a luxury). Fresh fruit and vegetables: potatoes, carrots and bananas, mostly, are kept in one room; tins in another. There are more baked beans than you have seen in your life, separated into tins with sausages and tins without.

Before Covid, a busy day for the Welcome Centre would see staff processing 40 new referrals. (Service users are sent by more than 100 local agencies – typically, schools, jobcentres, GP surgeries, the council and partner charities.) Now, 80 referrals is more typical. These numbers make Coteau’s chest tighten with worry, because, in addition to this dramatically increased demand for their services, many of the volunteers are retirees, putting them in the at-risk group for coronavirus. “When Covid hit, we lost between a third and half of our volunteers,” Coteau says.

Like most food banks, the Welcome Centre has moved to a delivery service because of the pandemic, with the aid of Kirklees council, which supplies drivers and vans. By 9am, with drivers loading vans to take out and volunteers arriving to assemble food packs, the doorbell is ringing constantly.

After a morning spent getting the day’s food packs sorted and sent out, Coteau chairs a staff meeting. Talk turns to how they will purchase the fresh supplies – fruit, vegetables, milk and cheese – they use to supplement their packs if there is another run on supermarkets. Coteau decides to reach out to local wholesalers now, to avoid a rerun of April’s last-minute scrabble to find stock.

Volunteers at the Welcome Centre warehouse unpack and sort food donations.



Volunteers at the Welcome Centre warehouse unpack and sort food donations. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Friday 2 October

The Welcome Centre started 25 years ago, as a small, church-run affair. “It was really just a cupboard of tins to give to people whose houses had burned down, or flooded – that sort of thing,” says Jeanne Watson, a retired headteacher and Welcome Centre trustee. Food banks as we know them have been around for 20 years, since the Trussell Trust opened one in Salisbury in 2000. From 2013 onwards, however, as the Conservative-led coalition government enacted austerity policies, more and more Huddersfield residents experienced food insecurity. Sadly its story is not unique: its the story of the wider food-bank movement in the UK.

Fridays are always the busiest day of the week, because people realise they do not have enough food for the weekend, panic and reach out for help. Coteau generates a delivery list of the households to which they will be distributing food parcels: 59 crates of food, for 41 households.

Today, because she is in the late stages of pregnancy, Coteau is not able to load up the vans herself as she used to, so she briefs volunteers, who are responsible for assembling the food packs. A load of soon-to-expire fresh bread and bananas has been donated by a local supermarket, so Coteau advises being generous with these when they are preparing the packs, so they do not go to waste.

A standard food pack for one person for a week consists of: a carton of milk, two tins of meat meals (such as a tin of chilli or corned beef), two tins of soup, two tins of baked beans, one tin of fish, one jar of pasta sauce and 500g of pasta, a jar of peanut butter, a box of cereal, a pack of dried noodles, two sachets of instant soup, one bag of sugar, 20 teabags, two chocolate bars, a loaf of bread and some butter, two baking potatoes, four eggs, two carrots, three bananas, and a packet of biscuits.

But this is just the regular pack: there are halal, vegetarian and kosher packs, packs for people with young children, packs for people who do not have access to a kitchen to cook, and even packs for vegans. “We are a diverse area,” says Coteau. “The last thing we would want is for people to have food they can’t eat for logistical reasons, or because it’s not appropriate for their diet or cultural preferences. It’s about dignity and respect.”

By 4pm, all the packs have been sent out. In normal times, Coteau would have a cup of tea and a chat with the volunteers, but Covid restrictions put paid to that. “You have to usher everyone out of the door,” says Ellie. “It’s such a shame. We rely on the goodwill of volunteers. Imposing all these strict rules and telling people they can’t linger goes against the spirit and culture of the place.”

Tuesday 6 October

In her pokey, strip-lit office, Coteau works through today’s referral list. There is a single mum, on universal credit, with two children, who has tested positive for Covid and is self-isolating. She can’t afford to order groceries online. “If you’re on a tight budget, online delivery charges push you beyond what you can afford,” says Coteau. There is a man in his late-20s, also on universal credit, whose fridge broke. He had to buy a new one, for £300, which ruined his budget for the month. Another man, in his late-50s, is in a low-income job. “We always see him at the end of the month,” says Coteau. “He doesn’t earn enough to bridge him through until the next pay cheque.”

People live so precariously. One wrong turn, one cancelled shift or broken fridge, can tip them over the edge.

When the welfare state was founded, it was conceptualised as a safety net, there to give relief to all in need during hard times, without judgment or contempt. But times have changed, according to Dr Dave Beck of the University of Salford, an expert in food poverty and food banks. Food banks mushroomed after the election of the Conservative-led coalition in 2010. “There was a retrenchment of welfare,” says Beck. “The coalition government saw a massive deficit to tackle, and decided to blame not bankers for it, but the people who take from the social security system.”

The bedroom tax, the reduction of child welfare payments and the roll out of universal credit in 2013, pushed more people into poverty – the five-week wait before claimants receive their first universal credit payment is a particular sore point. “Food banks became a safety net for the safety net,” says Beck. “We are now in the position where the third sector can’t stop providing, because people will starve. Once you get the food bank genie out of the bottle, you can’t get it back in.”

Thursday 8 October

Coteau visits the warehouse to check on supplies. It is not looking great. It is the emptiest it has looked all year. Pallets that would usually be stacked with tinned tuna are empty because fewer schools and churches are organising seasonal collections, due to the restrictions. “We’re getting nowhere near as many harvest donations as usual,” says Coteau. “This time of year, we’re normally tripping over bags.” Two-thirds of all the donations the Welcome Centre normally gets in a year come from Christmas or the harvest festival, and in the absence of these, Coteau will have to allocate the charity’s funds to purchase items from the supermarket.

That is not to say that donations have stopped entirely. Although the Lord Street office is closed to donations from the general public, people have been finding innovative ways to show their support. “There’s one gentleman in his 60s,” says Coteau. “He’s been through difficult times himself. He buys packet soups and puts them through the letterbox for us.”

The centre’s warehouse manager, Dave Woodward, moves a crate of tins.



The centre’s warehouse manager, Dave Woodward, moves a crate of tins. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Monday 12 October

A difficult phone call today. “The lady was distraught,” says Coteau, “and you could hear young children in the background. The children sounded upset as well.” The woman, who was in her 30s, had run out of food, and had no money to top up her gas and electricity meter, and needed help quickly. She called the Welcome Centre directly, after Googling it. “We’re seeing more people contacting us directly, rather than going through local agencies,” says Coteau. “That wouldn’t have happened a year ago.” Coteau processed a referral, issued a fuel voucher, and asked the volunteers to put some toys into the pack, for the children.

Receiving phone calls from someone who is obviously in distress is not easy. “It does affect you,” says Coteau. “No matter how many calls you get. It would be inhuman not to feel emotion.” Working in a food bank makes it impossible not to realise your privilege. The way to think about it, Coteau thinks, is that you are born with a certain number of charms in life, and you accumulate more as you get older – like the glowing stars in a game of Mario Kart. You are born to affluent parents: collect one star. Nobody abuses you in childhood: collect another star. You obtain a university degree: a third star. You find a job that pays you enough money to save for a rainy day: a fourth star. People turn to food banks when they have run out of stars: parents to lend them money, saving accounts to raid, friends to help them out. How many stars could you lose, before it is game over?

Wednesday 14 October

The mood in the centre is flat today. There is talk that Huddersfield may move into tier 3 lockdown – infections are going up. “We’re all a bit fed up,” says Coteau. “Everyone had been looking forward to Christmas, and now we’re all realising that we probably won’t be able to mix inside at all.”

Then there is the weather: it has been miserable for weeks, and cold, too. “We’re starting to see more people who are struggling to afford food, because of their heating bills,” says Coteau. She is worried that a tier 3 lockdown could be catastrophic. “Self-employed people are the main people we’re seeing,” says Coteau, “and a lot of bar staff and waiters. Their hours are already being cut. If we end up in tier 3, the pubs will close, and things will get so much worse.”

She remembers a client she spoke to in April, during the first wave. He worked at a restaurant and was a homeowner. But the furlough money was not enough to pay his mortgage and buy food – he worked overtime every month and the furlough pay was only 40% of his regular income. For the first time in his life, he could not afford to buy food. Coteau helped him to fill out his first universal credit application, and processed a referral.

A homeowner on the breadline: these are extreme times, and the implications for the Welcome Centre’s financial supporters are huge. If the people who support them lose their jobs in the economic meltdown, they will no longer be able to donate. Perhaps they will need food parcels, too. “There are no words, really,” says Coteau. “It’s just really difficult. And it’s going to get more difficult.”

Monday 19 October

When first-time referrals speak to the Welcome Centre, they usually say the same thing. “They start by telling you they’ve worked their whole life, and have never been to a food bank before,” Coteau says. “They feel like they have to justify it. Often, a lot of people will say that there are people worse off than them. Even though they’re in need, they still feel like they don’t qualify for or deserve the support.”

Coteau remembers a taxi driver who was referred to them early on in lockdown, before the government put into place support for the self-employed. “The stigma was a big challenge for him,” says Coteau. “He was a person who never thought he’d be going to a food bank, and he wasn’t happy. We try hard to be a nice, welcoming environment. No one wants to go to a food bank. You can hear it in their voices.”

The Welcome Centre has never seen so many first-time referrals. “The problem for us is that the people we were already supporting before Covid are struggling more,” says Coteau. “And there’s a whole new cohort of people who were managing before, who can’t manage any more. As the recession deepens, all these pressure points will build up until there are incredibly high levels of long-term need.”

Today, there is a first-time referral and a second-time referral. The first-time referral is a single mother with two children under 10. She lost her job due to the pandemic, and has applied for universal credit, but now faces the five-week wait before she will receive her first payment. The wait is one of the main reasons people contact the centre – they have a special five-week food pack for people in these circumstances. “People can’t live for five weeks until they get their first benefit payment,” says Coteau. “They don’t have five weeks’ savings to live on.”

The second-time referral is a family of six, with four children under 16. They first contacted the centre in June, when the mother lost her job. Now the father has tested positive for Covid, so they are having to self-isolate. He relies on overtime payments to top up the family income to a liveable wage, but because he is not working, the family has not got enough money to eat.

Bathroom products in boxes at the centre's warehouse



Conditioner, men’s razors and shaving foam are among the bathroom products that the centre struggles to get enough of. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Wednesday 21 October

This evening, the government voted to end free school meals during school holidays for low-income children. Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith tweeted: “I do not believe in nationalising children. Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility, and that means less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter.” It was a swipe at the footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals.

When the result of the vote comes through, Coteau is stunned. The shock settles into something more like annoyance with herself, as much as anything: after a decade of watching the government enact policies that directly impact the people she works with on a daily basis, it was foolish to expect this time would be any different. Usually so chipper, for the first time we have spoken, Coteau sounds fatigued.

She and her team are suddenly responsible for feeding Huddersfield’s poorest children. “You’d think it was one of those things that people could get behind, regardless of party politics,” she says. “No one wants to see children go hungry, do they? Or at least, you’d think they don’t want to see that.”

The unspoken truth underpinning all of this is that the government knows food banks will step in. “It’s chicken and egg,” Coteau says. “People are in need. They’re struggling. Food banks help them because otherwise they would go hungry. But the more that food banks grow, the more the government can strip back statutory provision, because it knows that the third sector will pick it up.” Coteau often wonders if food banks are a mistake, if all of this is a mistake, if it would be better to shut food banks down entirely, and force the government to provide. But would it? She is not so sure.

Thursday 22 October

Arriving in work today, Coteau smiles when she notices that the letterbox is full of sachets of chicken noodle soup. Their supporter has been round, again.

She arranges a food pack for a man in his 50s. He was referred to the centre in July, when he lost his job, due to Covid. Since then, he has had a health scare and has struggled to manage his finances on universal credit. They have made 11 food parcels for him so far.

Coteau answers the phone to another new referral – a woman, in her 60s. She lost her job due to Covid, and the centre has been supporting her. “She told me that she was old and she doesn’t eat that much,” says Coteau. “She asked: ‘Could we cancel her pack for next week, so someone else can have it?’” Even though she had so little, the client did not want to take more than she absolutely needed, in case someone else was in greater need.

Volunteer worker Michael Blake is the head driver and collects food donations for the centre from supermarkets and shops from all around Huddersfield



Volunteer worker Michael Blake is the head driver and collects food donations for the centre from supermarkets and shops from all around Huddersfield. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Friday 23 October

This morning, one of their delivery drivers was dropping off a food pack when a young child opened the door. She looked at the food, and then ran to ask her mother if she could eat breakfast now. It was gone midday.

Monday 26 October

Coteau spent the weekend waiting for a U-turn on the free school meals vote. It never came. She could not believe it. Now it is half-term in Kirklees. There are 56 new referrals today, 18 of which are families. “People are struggling to feed their kids now they’re off school,” says Coteau. “That’s the reality of last week’s decision.”

Today’s referrals include a couple in their mid-30s, with three children under 13, who are struggling to buy food and pay for heating, and a single man on universal credit with two children under 12, whom he can’t afford to feed. Both are first-time referrals. “Because of Covid, people’s normal support networks are limited,” says Coteau. “It might be that, before, in the school holidays, they’d take the kids to their parents’ house, and their mum would feed them.”

Tuesday 27 October

In reception, Watson is making up a pack for a new referral: a couple, who are sleeping in their car. Even though she has volunteered at the centre for seven years, referrals like these still make her emotional. She fills the pack with yoghurts, tins of tuna, cereal bars – nothing that needs cooking, or will make mess. After the pack is done, she pauses, then puts in a box of chocolates, thinking that it might lift their spirits, if only for a bit.

Thursday 29 October

So many last-minute referrals came in late last night from families affected by the free school meals policy that they ran out of potatoes, and Bristow had to run out to Asda this morning, to buy more. They are out of biscuits too, so he calls Dave Woodward in the warehouse, and asks him to send some over in the next van drop. Today alone the centre will receive requests for 105 new people. Half of them are children.

A hand-drawn message from a child to the staff of the Welcome Centre, is pinned to the wall. It says: ‘You are all superheros’ and ‘Keep going Supers! You can do it’.



A hand-drawn message from a child to the staff of the Welcome Centre, is pinned to the wall. It says: ‘You are all superheros’ and ‘Keep going Supers! You can do it’. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Friday 30 October

Last night, the news broke: West Yorkshire is moving into tier 3 lockdown, as feared. Coteau’s overriding feeling is resignation. “This is what it is,” she says simply. “And this is how it’s going to be for the next six months.” She is a practical person, and asks herself what she can do to help. “All we can do is maintain our service,” she says. “So, we’ll do that.”

In her office, she pulls together the numbers for the month. This month, the Welcome Centre provided 28,283 meals to 978 people – one of their busiest ever months. (Last year, they supported 4,258 people in total.) And the demand keeps growing. “At this rate, by November, we’ll be back where we were in March,” says Coteau.

Plus, there is the fact that Christmas is usually the busiest time of year for a food bank – people are trying to buy presents, they have heating bills to think about, and they are more likely to pay for public transport as it is too cold and rainy to walk. Then there is Brexit to get through. “If a tin of beans goes up by 20p, will we get fewer cans donated? Probably,” says Coteau.

Around lunchtime, she visits the warehouse manager. When she arrives, Woodward is outside, smoking a cigarette – today was manic, and it is his first break. Inside, volunteers are sanitising the shelves.

Today was a good day, Woodward tells Coteau. He hands her an envelope of cash donations. Better still, a local community aid group turned up on a borrowed fire engine and unloaded crates of supplies. Supporters have been dropping off car-loads of food for weeks, and local businesses have, too. The warehouse is in good shape – great shape, even. Almost every pallet is stacked high with food, labelled by use-by date, all donated: pasta and Advent calendars and noodles and soup and biscuits and chocolates and crisps and tuna and beans, so many beans.

Huddersfield came through for its local food bank, in the end. And thanks to a public outcry and Rashford’s ceaseless campaigning, there has now been a second government U-turn on free school meals – which came too late to feed Huddersfield’s children over the half-term, but secured funding to feed low-income children over the Christmas break. It is the same story across the country: small businesses and community aid groups and individuals, donating their time and labour and money to those in need, knowing that the only way any of us will get through the next few months is together. And these will be very dark months, indeed.