Cost-of-living crisis: 'My fundraising challenge of living on £1 of food a day for five days is the harsh long-term reality for families living in poverty'
Rev Gill Hulme, Bishop's Stortford Methodist Church minister and current chair of Churches Together Bishop's Stortford, on the cost-of-living crisis...
There was a great deal of media coverage recently about the cost of living and how you might (or not) be able to cook a meal for 30p.
In my last Methodist appointment, before moving to Bishop's Stortford, I undertook a fundraising and awareness challenge. Called 'Living Below the Line', it challenged relatively affluent people like me to experience what it means to live on £1 a day, by spending £5 for five days' food. You were not allowed to use store cupboard ingredients nor accept a cuppa from friends!
I tried to plan what I thought was going to be a reasonably balanced diet in terms of calories and, as a non-meat eater, I based it around dried lentils for protein. Looking back on my shopping list, this is what my fiver bought me (shopping around I might add): basic rice, basic spaghetti, a wholemeal loaf, one sweet potato, dried lentils, tinned kidney beans, basic peanut butter, 1kg frozen veg (cheaper than buying fresh), four carrots, one banana, box of tomato purée, vegetable stock cubes plus two small loose chillies for flavour.
My memories of those five days were utter boredom at the same meals day after day (even though I pride myself on being an inventive cook, there are only so many things you can do with lentils), plus hunger and always thinking about food, combined with tiredness and a craving for a nice fresh salad (and a cup of tea!). My long-suffering husband, Graham, reckons I was very bad tempered, but I think he might be exaggerating.
The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed there was no dairy, no meat, no eggs and no treats in there. I was definitely not getting my five portions of fruit or veg a day. To buy the same basket today would cost well over £6, and to make it balanced, with more fruit and adding in-season veg, teabags, milk, cheese and eggs, would bring it nearer to £10.50, even shopping around for bargains.
But this is the reality of juggling budgets that families are now having to live with, and many living in poverty don’t have the benefit of a freezer or the facilities to batch cook, like Lee Anderson MP, who claimed the solution was learning to budget and to cook from scratch and that food banks were unnecessary.
He has got it the wrong way round. Food banks are a necessary sticking plaster in a time where austerity has become a reality for such a large proportion of our community. Paraphrasing the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is our Christian duty to rescue those drowning in the river, but at some point we need to go upstream and find out and stop what is pushing them into the water to begin with.
When I arrived at Stortford I was amazed that such a seemingly affluent town needed a food bank. The poverty was mainly hidden, but talking with the trustees I was soon put right.
The community here is generous and donated magnificently during the pandemic, when the food bank operation took over the whole of the Methodist Church during lockdown. They continue to give, which is just as well, because demand has quadrupled from an average of 330 vouchers (560 people fed) a year pre-Covid to a staggering 1,263 vouchers (2,405 people fed) last year.
The food bank now give out fuel vouchers, and the need for these has increased at an alarming rate. It must be stressed that they work on the basis of short-term help (in order to avoid dependency) and signpost clients via Citizens Advice and other organisations to get help with finance, budgeting and other problems.
The Exchange, run by the Baptist Church, has also seen far greater demand than ever before and is now open twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Talking to other clergy in my role as chair of Churches Together Bishop's Stortford, all are agreed that the need is increasing exponentially and, although willing to help as much as possible, churches too are struggling to cope with the scale of this.
So what is pushing people into this cycle of poverty? We all know about the rising cost of energy, food, petrol etc due to the world situation, with inflation adding to this misery. But what most of us may not be aware of is how our benefit system seems designed to push people into debt.
Many people claiming Universal Credit (UC) are in fact employed, but low paid or in jobs where the hours change from week to week (UC is a single payment combining a number of benefits, so the accuracy and timeliness of payments is even more crucial than for the variety of benefits UC replaced, but sadly these payments are often delayed and inaccurate).
Statistics gathered by churches and food banks show that debt to central and local government plays a significant role in pushing people into destitution and towards food banks. In mid-2020, nearly half of people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network were in debt to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) alone, a significant rise on previous years.
The five-week wait for UC means many people have no choice but to take an advance payment to manage essential bills like rent and utilities. That leaves people often starting out with deductions from payments, trapping them in impossible situations.
Similarly, when the benefit system makes overpayments in error – most commonly with tax credits – people are powerless as to when or how the money is clawed back. If you are in debt to your utility company, you can often arrange an affordable repayment scheme. DWP debt gives no such choices, and as the £20 UC uplift has been removed, the effects can only be described as cruel.
For years the national churches have been campaigning on this. For years the Government seem deaf to our pleas for justice. I would appeal to all readers to research the facts on the causes of poverty and food bank use, rather than read the headlines.
Please don’t stop being generous to those in desperate situations – the sticking plasters are needed more than ever. However, voluntary organisations should not have to pick up the pieces from a broken benefit system and I believe that now is the time for us to campaign for a just and equal distribution of resources via organisations like Church Action on Poverty, but also through local letter-writing and campaigning.
Some will say it is not the job of church leaders like myself to be political. Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil is quoted as saying: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
I would want every person of faith (and all people of goodwill) in this town to consider what it would be like if we obeyed Jesus’ commandment ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.