Jenny estimates she eats four days a week, if she’s lucky. She’s clearly underweight and worryingly thin but she’s not the priority, she said. “I will go without to let my kids have.”
She lives in a house with her children and grandchildren, including a young baby who, at the moment, is always cold. They wrap themselves in quilts to keep warm. “I daren’t put the heating on. I get a little heater out for the bairn. He’s absolutely gorgeous but I am panicking … his little hands are cold. The house is absolutely freezing.”
One son is on a zero-hours contract and has just been told there’s no work for a fortnight. Her daughter is still sorting maternity money. “We’re having to live on my universal credit,” said Jenny. “It is getting harder and harder. We’re in a hellhole. I’m not looking forward to Christmas.”
Jenny, who did not want to give her full name, was speaking on Wednesday after picking up a family food parcel from the food bank in Newcastle’s West End, one of the UK’s busiest.
It’s the food bank that featured in Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. In 2018 it was visited by the UN’s then special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. Things were bleak then, they’re worse now.
Research by the Trussell Trust published on Thursday revealed the cost of living crisis is transforming the profile of the typical UK food bank user. Nurses, shop assistants and youth workers are among large numbers of people in low-paid jobs who feel they have to use food banks.
It is a trend recognised in Newcastle. Gemma Whaley, the food bank’s operations manager, said since June they have been giving out about 2,000 food parcels a month, which is 400 more than the previous average.
“We have been able to cope … just,” she said. “We are having to buy a lot more in to meet that demand.”
The increase has coincided with a fall in food donations. “With the cost of living everybody is just struggling themselves. The people who used to give didn’t have a lot anyway, but now they’re really stretched so giving to charity drops off, I suppose.”
The food bank dispenses about 23 tonnes a month of food but only gets about nine to 10 tonnes a month of donations, which means it needs money to buy wholesale. The lifeline is collecting money at Newcastle United home matches with whatever they get matched by the family foundation of the club’s co-owner Jamie Reuben.
“It has made a huge difference,” said Whaley. “Some people put pennies in, some people put in £10 or £20. The support you get from the fans, you can’t really describe it to be honest with you, it makes you quite emotional.
“I think its representative of the city as a whole, people just want to help.”
The food parcels are divided into three categories: for single people, couples and families. They have pasta, pasta sauce, tea bags and tinned food such as beans and soup. There’s a table of extras people can ask for including milk, cans of pop, small bags of crisps, bread, fruit and veg.
There are also meals cooked by volunteers and frozen meals. For people who only have a kettle for their meals there might be Pot Noodles.
Ten minutes down the road at St James’ Benwell church is the food bank’s Pathways operation, offering people a wide range of extra help including making sure they get the benefits they are entitled to. Carole Rowland, the Pathways manager, was around when the UN visited in 2018. Things are so much worse now, she said.
“What Covid and the cost of living crisis has done is drag the middle classes kicking and screaming into poverty,” she said. “We’ve got people coming to us who have full-time jobs but they have received a massive bill and they can’t pay it. That’s the difference.”
People gathered in the church on Wednesday were getting welfare advice and picking up food parcel vouchers, but also so much more. There was a representative from the city council and from the Homeless charity Shelter. Or for people who needed a haircut, a barber.
Free mobile phone Sim cards, two per person, were also available and also books were laid out on tables for people to help themselves to.
One of those looking through the books was Nicola Telford, 39, whose family, including two children, was recently made homeless after getting behind with the rent. She is now in a council house with no carpets. “I am back to square one, we’ve had to start all over again,” she said. “We were in a fully furnished house but now I’m having to spend money for this new house. It’s hard. We wouldn’t cope without the food bank.”
Like many people the Guardian spoke to, Telford said she was trying to ration energy use. “You’ve just got to be really tight. You pray for a sunny day to put the washing out.”
Another woman, who asked not be named, couldn’t believe she was there on Wednesday. “Last year I had a good job at Sainsbury’s, this year I’m at a food bank,” she said.
“My life has done a total 360 turn in the last year, I’m really struggling with all of this … but it is not just me. I’ve owned businesses but that’s not going to happen again. I can’t forgive this government for what they are doing with the cost of living.
“I have lost my confidence. It wears you down, you lose your mojo … but I will come back.”