United Kingdom

Middle class, professional... and forced to feed our families from food banks

Returning to her £1.6million London home, Faye Davies Fuller took a minute on the doorstep to compose herself, shielding her three children from her tears.

How on earth had it come to this — being handed food tokens at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau to supplement her measly £54-a-month Universal Credit payment — when, until nine months ago, Faye and her husband, Darren, had a six-figure income between them?

The answer, of course, is the global pandemic, which has taken a devastating toll on countless hard-working people and utterly crushed the live events industry in which Faye, 42, earned her living as a freelance executive producer.

‘I was preparing for a corporate event in Copenhagen at the end of March when Covid brought everything to a standstill,’ recalls Faye. ‘I lost all my income and, being the sole director of my limited company, I wasn’t entitled to any of the grant money the Government gave to sole traders.

Women who've turned to food banks to feed their families, reveal how the pandemic impacted their fiances despite having professional careers. Pictured: Faye Davies Fuller with daughters Evie, 15, and ten-year-old Millie

‘Meanwhile, my husband, an estate agent, was furloughed, which meant his income fell by 20 per cent. As a household, we lost 70 per cent of our income in one fell swoop.

‘As Darren’s income was taken into account when they assessed my claim — despite the fact it nowhere near covers our hefty mortgage, bills and other outgoings — I was only entitled to £54 a month in Universal Credit.’

With their savings all gone — together with the proceeds from selling off any bits of furniture, electronics and clothes the family could live without — and desperate for ways to feed her three kids, Faye turned to her local Citizens’ Advice Bureau for help in August.

She was given the option of either having food parcels delivered or vouchers she could exchange for goods at her local food bank.

Some may struggle to sympathise with the plight of a family who have long been so fortunate — especially when many thousands of others, already struggling to make ends meet, have had their lives utterly destroyed by the pandemic. Faye is keenly aware of this.

‘I felt so ashamed that it had come to this,’ she says.

‘I couldn’t bear the thought of someone from a less affluent area, or a smaller house, turning up at my front door with provisions and thinking: “What the hell are they doing asking for food parcels when they live in this massive house?”,’ says Faye.

‘And pride wouldn’t allow me to go to the food bank myself. I imagined people looking at me and thinking: “She doesn’t need to be here!”’ So she turned down the food bank vouchers she was offered.

Faye who lives in London, said she has tried to turn deliveries from a nearby food bank into a game with her children. Pictured: Faye and her daughters 

‘Still, I really didn’t know how we would manage without this help.

‘Fortunately, when I mentioned my fears to a friend, it turned out her mum volunteered at a nearby food bank and she has packed a bag and delivered it to me, without shame or fanfare, every week since.’

Admittedly, it’s a far cry from the homemade crab ravioli and Goan fish curries the family love.

‘It might not be the kind of food we’d have eaten in the past but it contains all the pantry basics — rice, pasta, tuna, beans — from which you can always make something,’ says Faye. ‘I try to make it into a game with the children, saying: “Let’s see what’s in the bags this week and what we can create from it.”’

The startling reversal of the family’s fortunes illustrates the sweeping and indiscriminate economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.

Back in spring, around half of those asking for help from food banks, an additional 100,000 people, had never done so before, say those who run the 2,000-plus facilities in the UK.

Anti-poverty charity Trussell Trust run 1,200 food banks while the rest are independently managed, often by local churches and charities.

Sophia Waterfield, 31, a freelance writer, who lives in a market town near Beverley, East Yorkshire, ran out of savings in June. Pictured: Sophia Waterfield and her two-year-old son Amyas

Jo Benham Brown of Key Project, which runs a food bank in South Shields, Tyneside, says there’s ‘deep shame’ among those who once had good jobs before coronavirus hit.

‘As they’ve had decent incomes, they think others will judge them for not having six months’ salary set aside for a rainy day,’ she says.

‘But the fact is that many people’s outgoings match their income and, as a society, we’ve had credit rammed down our throats now for so many years that most have got out of the habit of saving for things they want, such as cars, holidays and furniture.

‘Since the start of the pandemic we’ve been supporting people who worked in IT, had their own businesses, and even a self-employed dentist who has lots of debts from his years of study. Never did any of them imagine that they would be turning to us for help.’

One mother, who lost her job with a major retailer while her husband was furloughed, was so embarrassed that she asked if her food parcels could be delivered after dark, and all in bags from the same supermarket, so her neighbours wouldn’t know where they had come from.

Even those who’d saved for a rainy day and ‘got by’ for months without handouts have been unable to sustain it as the pandemic drags on.

Faye said she had a meltdown four weeks ago, having previously never been in a position where she's unable to buy her children birthday presents. Pictured: Faye and her daughters

‘I hit rock bottom emotionally four weeks ago and had a real meltdown,’ says Faye. ‘Two of our kids had birthdays and I’ve never been in a position where I haven’t been able to buy them presents.

‘Luckily, I have a “present cupboard”, mostly of things I’ve picked up in the sales, and had a few T-shirts for our son, fancy hair bobbles for our younger daughter, and books for them both.’

Their beautiful Edwardian five-bedroom home in West London, where they have lived for 15 years, is now on the market and, once it’s sold, the family will move to Dorset or Devon, using the equity from their home to buy a place outright, hopefully with outbuildings they can convert into holiday accommodation.

Uprooting their children, Finley, 15, Evie, 13, and Millie, ten, and moving to a place where the family has no connections is a tough but necessary step to enable them to survive.

Although Faye and Darren, 49, hope to return to work when normal life resumes, holiday rentals would potentially give them another source of income, should their industries be hit again.

In previous years, the family has spent up to a month of the summer holidaying in Spain, but this year they made do with a wet week camping in the English countryside.

Lowri Williams, 49, has been getting by on Universal Credit, child benefit and child maintenance from her ex. Pictured: A food bank 

Lowri Williams, 49, has also seen her finances take a hammering due to Covid restrictions. Not only has she had to remove her daughter from her private school, but the family is also reliant on food banks.

Lowri worked, via her limited company, as a project manager for firms staging live conferences and events, none of which have been permitted since March.

The fees for her daughter Millie’s private school were jointly paid by Lowri and her ex-partner, from whom she separated three years ago, as well as grandparents on both sides.

However, since losing her income, and, as a limited company, not being entitled to Government support for sole traders, Lowri has been getting by on £600 a month in Universal Credit plus £82.40 child benefit and £380 in child maintenance from her ex.

As the monthly mortgage repayments on her bungalow in a market town near Blackpool, Lancashire, are £650, plus utility bills, council tax and the cost of running a car, which she uses for the school run, her outgoings total £1,700, a deficit of £637.

Lowri’s elderly father has already released equity from his home to support his daughter, but Lowri would have struggled to put meals on the table without a food bank.

‘When the local nurse first suggested I go, I said: “No! My parents and I have raised money for charity all our lives, I’m not taking from a food bank!” However, I realised if the alternative was ending up starving and on the streets, I had to swallow my pride.’

Lowri who has made regular visits to a food bank run by a church, said people like her have been forced by the Government not to work. Pictured: Food bank in Plymouth 

Since May, Lowri has made regular visits to a food bank run by a church in Blackpool, where much is donated by companies, including baker Greggs, that pass on any unsold products.

In exchange for a contribution of £5 — some charities ask for a small donation so they can stock up on provisions — Lowri, like other visitors, can take away £20 worth of groceries, including bread, pasta, tinned foods, biscuits and some frozen ready meals.

Despairing at her dramatic change in fortunes, Lowri has joined Excluded UK, a group representing the estimated three million people who have ‘slipped through the net’ and missed out on Government support.

‘People like me are being forced by the Government into not being able to work, to keep everyone safe, but given no financial support to get us through,’ says Lowri. ‘We just want parity — to be treated fairly, to help us survive until we can get back to work.’

Yet another badly hit group are parents of children whose breakfast and after-school clubs have closed as part of Covid prevention measures, according to Josie Barlow, who manages a food bank in Bradford where numbers seeking help quadrupled at the start of the pandemic.

In those early months the charity, set up by the Light Church and part of the Trussell Trust, was giving away £10,000 worth of food to 500 people every week.

Sophia Waterfield explained she was forced to turn down work because of the frequency that her son was unable to go to pre-school due to suspected coronavirus. Pictured: Morrisons

‘We’ve had lots of mums coming in who, without this wrap-around childcare, found it impossible to do their jobs. The school day isn’t long enough for most to earn a living and many have had no choice but to quit,’ says Josie.

‘One of our clients told her boss that she didn’t have anyone to look after her kids before and after school on Wednesdays and he said, “That’s not our problem”, and she had to leave.’

It’s a story familiar to Sophia Waterfield, 31, a freelance writer and mother to two-year-old Amyas, who lives in a market town near Beverley, East Yorkshire.

At the start of the pandemic, Sophia was in the fortunate position of doing regular shifts from home for one media outlet. However, the frequency with which Amyas was not allowed to go to pre-school due to either him, other children, or staff having suspected coronavirus, has led to her having to turn down work.

Sophia, a single mum who freelanced via her limited company, sensibly had almost £3,000 in savings, which she used to cover her outgoings, including the private rent on their family home, until June, when it ran out. Feeling desperate, she was relieved to see a post on Facebook about a local food bank, the People’s Pantry, which, in exchange for a voluntary £5 donation, provides a box containing enough food for a fortnight.

Each time she has been told her son has to isolate for 14 days, often while struggling to access Covid testing, Sophia has contacted the People’s Pantry.

Sophia who has gone from earning around £2,000 a month to very little, said there's a stigma that those who use food banks must be 'poor'

‘I tell them that we’re having to isolate, which makes it a little easier for me,’ says Sophia, who feels she has to explain why she’s not earning and needs help to feed her little boy. ‘Otherwise there’s this stigma that if you use food banks you must be “poor” but it’s not that, I’m just adapting to the circumstances.

‘Having gone from working full time and bringing in around £2,000 a month, to not at all a lot of the time, I honestly don’t know what we’d have done without these parcels over the past few months.

‘Each time one is delivered, I weep with appreciation for those who donate and the volunteers.’

It’s a far cry from the life Sophia was leading just three years ago in London, working as a senior PR executive, travelling the world and dining in upmarket restaurants.

She and her then partner, Amyas’s dad, moved to Yorkshire to be closer to Sophia’s family, although since their separation two years ago her ex, an American citizen, has moved back to the U.S.

Navigating a pandemic as the lone, working parent of a toddler would be a challenge for anyone.

However, Sophia is optimistic that, with the help of vaccines and improved testing, things will return to normal next year. It’s a hope shared by Faye Davies Fuller and Lowri Williams, as well as countless others forced into food poverty by this disease.

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