The food bank is a place where families struggling financially can access food for free from the local council. A good scheme? Absolutely. But my experience with food banks made me feel like a charity case.
At age eleven, I lived with my mother in a women’s refuge in North London. The walls were bare, the hallway was cold, and I felt exposed under the bright, almost institutional strip lights in every room. While we were living out of rucksacks, trying to make this little box room homely, we also needed to find food. I was intrigued by these little vouchers that gave us access to these mysterious looking parcels. Soon I found out where they came from.
Keeping the food bank trips discrete as a child was always my priority. We would go to ‘Gift’, a food bank charity based in Hendon, North London. The thought of bumping into someone that I knew there terrified me. I would document the excuses in my mind if the scenario ever occurred. My favourite was ‘Oh, I am picking this package up for someone else, because we have a car’ These were the first excuses I learned to make.
Mum wouldn’t feel embarrassment, she simply did what she had to do to keep us afloat. I knew that too, but I couldn’t help being consumed by social judgment, especially from my peers at school. Why would they understand? It didn’t feel normal. But when mum would receive our vouchers, she would express her unapologetic excitement, shouting ‘woohoo!’ in an almost sarcastic tone. That’s what I love about my mum, so present with the things that are happening and no desire to measure reactions. She always finds dark humour in everything we do. This would make it an easier trip.
But I would still feel paranoia, wondering if others were talking about me. The people on the other side of the counter would vary, and at times their pitiful smiles were patronising. I didn’t want to feel any more categorised than I already did.
My first day of secondary school at Dover School of Performing Arts was an opportunity for a fresh start from the social judgement I had felt at primary school. But it soon became clear that the cycle only repeated. I clung onto a group of rather loud, seemingly popular girls. At lunch, I reached for my orange juice. The girl sitting opposite me flippantly asked ‘Is that Morrison’s Value?’ I responded with my now familiar pattern of excuses, ‘My cousins gave me these juices, so I don’t know’. This lie felt ridiculous, but I was protecting mum and our financial situation. The conversation quickly changed; however my mind was stuck in what had just happened. For the rest of lunchtime, I couldn’t bring myself to reach for any food and I remained hungry for the rest of the day.
After that, weekly food shops done on a budget with mum would involve me trying to persuade her away from the cheapest option. Mum would diffuse this with, ‘It tastes the same Milli, honestly’. I know now that the unnecessary pressure that I put on her simply came from a place of vulnerability.
Let’s move away from feeling shame.
Today, my mum still uses the food bank sometimes, but she is better off, and I am self-sufficient. I still glance over the packages that she brings home, and together we discuss what we can do with this food. The difference is I am now accountable for my own income. Some may find adulthood daunting, but I feel empowered by the fact that I can make choices that bring me comfort. We now shop at our local supermarket, and have the privilege of choosing a vegan diet too. This freedom of choice with food is an unexplainable feeling. Adulthood has its perks.
I now hear stories from mum when she comes back from her trip to the food bank. She talks about how she speaks to everybody, especially with those who feel embarrassed to be there. You can easily spot those who are regulars and those who feel so out of their depth that their visit results in tears. Their shame is clearly too much to handle. Hearing these stories from mum brings a dysfunctional comfort – that I wasn’t the only child feeling this way. All I want to do now is tell them that it is all going to be okay. In fact, it’s a process that is quite humbling. It takes time to learn the skills to see it in a humorous and light-hearted light, the skills needed to survive in poverty in this country.
At the time, I could not help but feel like I would be stuck with whatever social status had been handed to me, for life. It is an intense playground, where every fragment of your being is magnified and categorised.
Food banks and food poverty isolated me at school, and schools need to normalise my experience. The more people step forward and voice their experiences, the more we can confront the food banks, the benefits, the interactions and the not so pretty parts of the process. There is no reason for people to be shocked when they encounter someone who goes to a food bank. We need to encourage understanding and provoke further discussion about the flaws in our system.
Milli-Rose Rubin is studying music at Goldsmiths University, London. Outside of making her own music, she writes monthly articles for VoiceMag, exploring the challenges she faced growing up, such as emergency accommodation, the food bank crisis and mental health amongst the youth.
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This article was developed out of the New Creatives Project, a programme for 16-21 year olds who do not know what their next steps are post-COVID, providing creative connections with a positive peer group.