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Food Banks: ‘I Didn’t Ask To Be Ill’

September 12, 2013

“I get really, really upset sometimes,” says Andrew Burton-Fullick, sitting in the front room of his small terraced house in Grantham. “I don’t sleep well now. Day-to-day life is a struggle. My partner works his socks off for us and he’s had time off with stress. It’s hand-to-mouth all the time. And I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Until January 2011, Burton-Fullick, 56, had been working as a care assistant in a nursing home, which he had done for 23 years. The year before, he had had a heart attack, and when he later developed heart complications his doctor told him he’d have to give up work. On top of this, he has been living with diabetes since he was a toddler and it is seriously affecting his health – his sight is deteriorating, he is suffering hearing loss (he wears hearing aids in both ears) and has nerve damage in his hands and legs. He also has arthritis, which makes walking difficult, and will soon be going into hospital for surgery on his bladder. A large plastic tub full of drugs is on the table next to him.

He was given benefits that came to nearly £400 a month – less than he had been earning, but just about enough, combined with his partner’s salary as a hospital porter, to live on. Then, as part of a reassessment by Atos, he was told he was no longer eligible for the new incapacity benefit, his benefits would be stopped immediately and that, despite his numerous health problems, he was fit for work and should go and find a job. He appealed, but lost. He isn’t even eligible for jobseeker’s allowance.

And there are no jobs for him. When he turned down a position because it was only 16 hours a week and almost all of his salary would have gone on commuting costs, he says the staff at the Jobcentre called him “lazy”. “Well, how come I worked for 23 years in the care trade and only had to stop through illness? I didn’t ask to be ill. I didn’t ask for this to happen,” he says. “I know people who run businesses and they’ve told me they wouldn’t touch me with a bargepole. There are well people out there looking for jobs, so people like me aren’t going to get a look-in.”

The couple survive on one low salary. There are no luxuries or treats. Holidays are never considered; the one day out they’ve had all year was a trip to Nottingham for the recent Gay Pride festival and that had to be carefully budgeted for. Burton-Fullick needs new glasses, but can’t afford them; their immersion heater broke 18 months ago but they don’t have the money to get it fixed. They can usually afford to eat (though Burton-Fullick will sometimes skip meals), but when the money runs out before payday, the food bank steps in.

Burton-Fullick first used it at the beginning of last year. Their house got flooded and the unexpected expense left them without any money. He was referred by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, which issued a food bank voucher. “We were so thankful, and we still are,” he says. “It means a lot. It means we’re not struggling.” He used it a couple of times last year, and has done the same a couple of times so far this year (it’s not meant to be used regularly).

At 1pm the Grantham food bank opens, and we slowly walk the few streets from his house. Burton-Fullick uses a shopping trolley to steady himself (he would like a mobility scooter but can’t afford one). The food bank is on the ground floor of a Victorian terraced building, with posters in the bay window. One reads: “Restoring dignity, reviving hope, building community.” Inside, several volunteers are packing supermarket carrier bags with food, while other volunteers sit at tables with food bank users, or “clients” as they’re called.

Brian Hanbury, the food bank’s coordinator, sits down with Burton-Fullick and asks him how he has been. “You’re about the 3,000th client,” Hanbury says. “We’ve had 33 tonnes of food come through this little building within the last two years. I’m only telling you this because I know when people find themselves in a hard place, they think they’re on their own. We’re estimating there are close to 6,000 people in this area who are just a few steps away from not being able to put food on their plate.”

The food bank asks clients to write their stories in a book – they range from young people leaving abusive homes and ending up in a hostel, to people who had to have time off work for illness, to those affected by the new bedroom tax. Hanbury estimates around 40% of his clients come in because of Jobcentre sanctions against them stopping their benefits. Hanbury leaves us sitting at a table and when I look over to Burton-Fullick, he looks as if he’s going to cry. After a while, he says: “I get so angry.”

Back at home, he unpacks the bags. “They say there’s three days’ food here but I can make it last a lot longer than that. They are very generous.” He has also been given a bag of toiletries, including loo roll, toothbrushes and shower gel (the food bank started providing this after a young mother said how horrible it made her feel to have to wash her children using supermarket value brand washingup liquid).

The food donation includes tinned vegetables, pasta sauces, packets of spaghetti, a bag of porridge, chocolate biscuits and stir-fry sauce. He runs through a list of meals he can make: “I’ve got some mince in the freezer so I’ll do a cottage pie, curries I can do, I can convert this,” he says, holding up a packet of pasta sauce, “into a risotto.”

He seems so cheerful unveiling each item – we laugh at the incongruousness of a large jar of bratwurst – and you momentarily forget what an outrage it is that thousands of people are having to rely on food banks such as Grantham’s in order not to go hungry. “Sometimes,” he says, “I sit here and get so angry. I would love to get Mr Cameron to live at the end of the month on what we have to live on. I’m not asking for thousands of pounds, I’m not asking for people to feel sorry for me. I just want a fair deal.”

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