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Yes, I, Daniel Blake Is True To Life - But That's Not What We Should Be Debating

10/11/2016 12:20

Late to the party, I finally watched I, Daniel Blake in my local independent cinema this weekend, overpriced, delicious, and soon to feel incongruous cappuccino in hand.

All of these things are true, I kept thinking, as scene after scene resonated with what we see and hear at the foodbank, week in, week out. Condensed truth maybe, but none the less real for that.

In the four years since I helped set up Wandsworth Foodbank, I think I've met all the main characters in Ken Loach's film. I've met rigidly indifferent jobcentre advisers, recommending sanctions for people for minor infractions - unleashing a consequential tsunami of hunger, debt, rent arrears, poorer mental and physical health, eviction and even homelessness. I've met others - like Anne in the film - who are kinder, and do all they can to help within the constraints of the system that employs them.

I've met mums (and dads) who go hungry so their children can eat, hiding the truth behind claims of 'eating later' or 'still full from yesterday'. I've met people who've shoplifted a handful of basics to feed their family: baked beans, a couple of potatoes. I've met people who've shared what little they have with others who had even less.

Two weeks ago I met Matthew (the stigma of foodbank use meaning that's not his real name). Former Special Forces, then self-employed carpenter and joiner, he was referred to us by the jobcentre after life-threatening illness and emergency surgery left him unable to work. Despite huge difficulties with mobility, and recently diagnosed with PTSD, he had been found 'fit to work' and denied Employment Support Allowance, and so an income.
This tall, broad-shouldered, 'real-life' Daniel Blake fought back tears as he talked about what he'd experienced:

"Until it happens to you, you don't realise how bad life can be. I've paid my taxes since 1980, but it was still a pride thing for me to actually put my hand out and say I need help. The DWP can be very abrupt and you have to chase them. You have to fight. But every time I seemed to turn a corner, there'd be a wall. The world just becomes a dark place, a really horrible place. I've stayed in bed for days, because you don't get hungry in bed, when there's nothing in the cupboards.

"People and the government and the DWP need to know the work that foodbanks do, and need to know the position that people are put in. People have to realise that foodbanks are here for a reason now, because of what's happening; because of the situations people face through no choice of their own, like me."

The truth is we're all somewhere on the continuum between belief and disbelief about Daniel Blake, foodbanks, hunger and poverty in the UK.

But Matthew is right. Wherever we are, we all - individuals, government, local councils - need to move the debate on. We need to take a cold hard look at what's driving foodbank use, so that together we can find solutions that will mean less people, not more, have to use foodbanks in the years ahead.

When the Trussell Trust foodbank network (of which our foodbank is a part) is on course to distribute the highest number of emergency food parcels in its 12-year history, there's never been a better time.

Sarah is trustee of Wandsworth Foodbank. Wandsworth Foodbank is part of The Trussell Trust's foodbank network.

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