The door of the Hut was never locked. I considered it, after a couple of people had a party in there one night and left a bit of a mess, but it always felt wrong to put it under lock and key.
We filled the Hut Monday to Friday with food rescued by myself and my volunteers from the instore waste bins at Lidl. We didn’t seek funding for what we did because we didn’t want to play by anyone’s rules. We also wanted to prove that anyone could do what we did with just a few volunteers and a couple of cars.
We passionately believed that no one should need to prove themselves worthy of accepting food rescued from the bins. That’s why I fought so hard against people who moaned about the worthy and the unworthy.
In the early days someone posted on a local Facebook page that they’d seen a local drug addict take a whole tray of doughnuts from the Hut one morning. I asked if they knew where the addict lived and if they could message me the address. Then I posted on the page that I would deliver the food to the drug addict from then on if their presence at the Hut upset people so much.
The other reason why I was determined the food would be free to everyone was because I knew the food aid system up here in Burnley and Pendle wasn’t working.
Yes, there were plenty of volunteers in food banks here who were working tirelessly and for all the right reasons but because of the ridiculous referral system the majority of people in need would never qualify for a food parcel.
I knew that if the posh lady popped into my hut to see if there was any coriander for her curry then it meant the little old man desperate for a few veggies to make soup would go in there without feeling humiliated.
All those food banks who needed funding to pay for their buildings, their directors, their transport and their utilities; they all had to provide lists of the worthy (including names, addresses and dates of birth) to secure more funding. Would you want to give all your details to an organisation who could call social services at any moment to report you for not being able to feed your children?
There are millions using foodbanks according to the official figures (who, incidentally, only count users of the Trussell Trust foodbanks) but there are millions more who are literally starving because they either wouldn’t meet the criteria for a food parcel referral or would simply not have a clue how to go about it. These are the people who used my hut and the people I have now abandoned.
I wanted to prove to the county council and the public health department that the food aid system wasn’t working.
The pensioners queuing at my hut for a loaf of bread and a few vegetables to make soup proved there was a problem.
The teenager who told me her family relied on the Hut after her dad had died suddenly leaving four kids proved there was a problem.
The many, many families who lived on what they found in the Hut after tax credits balls-ups left them without money for up to six months at a time, proved there was a problem.
Naively I believed that if I proved there was a problem then something would be done about it.
A year before I’d got the deal with Lidl, I was bringing over waste fruit and veg from the Manchester wholesale market, rescued through Fareshare. Delivering on the streets from the back of my people carrier gave me a very good insight into what was going on out there and the problems people were facing. I got to know many families on a very personal basis and I’ve made loads of amazing friends along the way.
Since those early days I’ve had meetings with public health directors and county councillors and sent reports telling them how bad poverty was out there and the reasons why.
I did this because I felt they had a duty to know and I was in a position to give them an insight. In the early days, the public health director who I liased with told me that everyone in her department kept asking her what I wanted and why I was giving up my free time to write unpaid reports. My reasons were simple. I wanted things to be better. I didn’t want funding, I didn’t want a pat on the back, I wanted the departments supposedly responsible for keeping the population alive and healthy to have some information from the streets to go with all their statistics and university written reports.
Naively, I believed they were listening. They asked me to speak at their food poverty conferences, they agreed that a supermarket card system was a better way of food aid provision than supporting a whole industry of food banks.
Sometimes I had to take extreme measures to get my point across like the time I arrived at a councillor’s home and dumped the rotting contents of a food parcel on his black marble kitchen worktops. This was a food parcel that our council funded at £26 a time. It contained £3.12 worth of food.
I watched from the sidelines and waited for things to get better. They got worse. My hut became famous. The BBC made a film about it and suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of it. We began filling schools and nurseries and OAP homes and then when the DWP refused to let us put food into the job centre we gave it away from outside their door. When one of the jobcentre workers came out and told us he was starving because he couldn’t make ends meet we wondered what the hell was going on. He was on the Work Fare programme, working five days a week to ‘earn’ his benefits and he was hungry.
When the jobcentre manager came out and told us she commended what we were doing, a little bit of me died.
I have a friend, Charlotte Hughes who stands outside her local jobcentre every week handing out food and information on people’s rights and how to fight the wrongs. She used to read a roll call of people who had been killed by DWP sanctions – until the list became too long.
Until the list became too long.
Until the list became too long.
Public Health sent an e mail in January saying that the Care and Urgent Needs system would only be providing two food parcels a year from now on. There is a rumour that the two parcels a year will soon be replaced with a hot cooked meal in a feeding centre. That should be fun, dragging your kids out in the rain to eat something they don’t like and walking them home again. Especially after you’ve been working all day.
I don’t actually feel I can write any more about this now because I’ve had a glass of wine and I’ll end up naming and shaming people who I feel have really, really let the people down.
But to finish, I’d just like to say that if you feel it’s ok for people to beg for food parcels then you can carry on putting tins of beans in that supermarket collection point but if you don’t think it’s right then get out there and demand that this government stop killing people, that employers pay a real living wage, that zero hours contracts are abolished. If you’re an employer then do the right thing and pay people what they are worth. If you’re an employee then stop taking this shit. You’re not slaves, you are worth as much as any of those tossers judging people on The Apprentice. Stand up for your rights, go on strike, bang on the door of your MP if you can’t afford to feed your kids instead of feeling humiliated by accepting a food parcel.
We are all better than this.