Food banks in Lewes, East Sussex, the town of Bill's breakfasts, artisan loaves and gourmet everything? There must be some mistake... surely?
My weekly food shop (just for me - I've no dependents) usually comes to about £65. It must be affordable, since I rarely check the total as I'm clicking away filling my virtual basket. It's hardly decadent, despite the odd cake and bottle of beer. I'm neither a high earner nor a compulsive eater, but I can - and do - buy enough food to satisfy my appetite's every whim. The weekly shop is just the start; I live in Lewes, after all, where the culinary temptations are manifold.
Barely a weekend goes by without my splurging an addition £20 or £30 on a meal at the Snowdrop, an Indian from Chaula's or a pizza (plus pudding, naturally) from Waitrose. Oh, and I buy fresh bread from my local shop St Pancras Stores at £3.30 a pop - pricy, yes, but delicious, so why not? That makes it at least £80 per week on food... not yet fat, not yet broke, so no problem.
I was taken aback, therefore, to learn that some of my neighbours, people who live just five minutes' walk up the road, rely on food banks to save them from going hungry. How could it be?
How could it be that people from our almost parodically affluent town need charitable support of this most basic kind? It was difficult for me to believe, as it is for many Lewesians, according to Pearl Zia, manager of De Montfort food bank.
"When I was outside Waitrose [fundraising for the food bank], people said to me, 'We don't have food poverty here. We have money; we can buy our own food'. I told them that that's not true. They just close their blinkers, and you've got the poor people who are working yet don't have money to cover the basics and are going hungry."
I meet with Pearl at the flat in Ousedale Close where she runs the De Montfort food bank, the biggest of Lewes's four food banks - the others are Malling, Landport and the Oyster Project (the latter is specifically for people with disabilities). De Montfort is a part of Lewes I'd never visited or even passed through before, tucked as it is between Western Road to the south and the tree-lined boulevard of Prince Edward's Road to the north (in which, incidentally, the average property price is £680,000*). Pearl tells me that, of the 150 homes on the estate, only one is privately owned; the rest is social housing.
De Montfort's was the first food bank in Lewes, set up by Pearl in December 2012. When I arrive, the ground floor flat from which the service is run is stacked with crates, tins and packets everywhere; the food bank has just received a large delivery from Fareshare, a charity that collects surplus stock from supermarkets - food that would otherwise go to waste - and delivers it to charities and community groups like this one. Delivery man Dave tells me that he and his colleagues salvage and redistribute 400 tonnes of food each year in the Brighton area alone (more on food waste in Brighton and a cameo by Pearl in this Guardian piece).
What motivated Pearl to set up the food bank?
"I had a need for a food bank myself when I was in temporary accommodation, nearly four years ago. That's what pushed me to do it, because I know what it's like."
Knowing what it's like means understanding the reality of finding oneself alone and at the mercy of strangers when one's life veers unexpectedly from the plan. Pearl had lived in London all her life, was earning a good salary as a retail manager and then as a PCSO, until a marriage breakdown "and other circumstances" left her homeless and forced her to relocate.
"I went into temporary accommodation in Brighton, but couldn't get housed there, so I ended up moving here. The only person I knew was my housing officer." The sense of isolation was short-lived; before long Pearl was actively involved in community-improvement projects and groups, and now speaks with great pride and fondness for her hometown. "I think now I know more people in Lewes than people who've lived in Lewes all their lives."
Pearl tells me how she sits down with each new user of the food bank and goes through their needs so that she can package provisions for them accordingly.
"Most of the people who come here are families with young children, so I make sure that in each bag they have enough to make them meals for a couple of days."
We have not been chatting for long when Pearl's helpers begin to arrive - volunteers who assist with the weekly task of sorting through the food and making up bags ready for collection. I meet Tim, former food bank user turned helper, a big, quiet man, aged about 50, at a guess. By way of introduction, Pearl says, "Tim was living in the woods for a couple of years." Tim nods but says nothing. I'm not sure how to ask, or rather where to begin. Living in the wild for years? All year round in the open?
"Well, in a two-man tent, yes," says Tim, matter-of-factly. Wasn't that horribly hard? "To start with, yes, but you get used to it."
Gradually more details emerge: Tim ran an army surplus shop in Exeter which went bankrupt. He "lost everything" and ended up trekking west to east across southern Britain surviving as best he could with nothing except his camping equipment. Didn't he seek help from welfare services?
"Yeah, but you get the same answer all the time: they say you've made yourself homeless so we can't help you, plus being a single chap you're low priority. It was like the Spanish Inquisition; they ask you every single thing, and make you feel like that." He indicates tininess with thumb and forefinger. "So I decided I wouldn't bother anymore."
Tim tells me how he survived by gathering dropped or discarded coins from pavements until he had enough to afford a packet of own-brand Rich Tea biscuits. And during cold snaps survival was even more gruelling. "The Christmas before last, I couldn't get out, there was about three foot of snow, and I was in the tent, and all I had to drink was melted snow and nothing to eat for about a week, and no heat. That wasn't very nice. That was pretty rough."
While he was sleeping rough in a patch of woodland near Plumpton, Tim was chanced upon by an inquisitive mountain biker who asked about his circumstances. "I didn't realise at the time, but he worked at the council," Tim recalls. "He said he'd bring me some food, and so he did - he turned up the next week with a couple of tins of soup and a packet of biscuits, and he brought me a radio, and he gave me Pearl's details and told me to come and see her."
Pearl provided Tim with food and put him in touch with the relevant people to get him re-homed and, effectively, back into society. Tim may not be a typical food bank user, but his story is a stark reminder of how people down on their luck easily become marginalised, and how marginalised people easily become invisible.
The more typical way to end up at a food bank is via a referral from an organisation or professional formally authorised to assess need, for example, the Job Centre, a health visitor or Citizen's Advice Bureau. If you presumed that food banks were hubs of no-strings-attached hand-outs, you were way off the mark, at least insofar as this one is concerned.
"It's all referrals," Pearl confirms. "Unless you've got a referral form, you can't come back."
That said, she is not a stickler for the rules; exceptions are made. "If there are children involved... I won't turn anyone away, not if I know they've got young children. I don't know if they've got any [food at all] indoors; I'm not privy to their cupboards."
I am keen to know whether demand on the De Montfort food bank is growing, and if so, why.
"Yes, it's gone from serving 10 people to serving 40 people a week," says Pearl, "and also now we've got a mobile food bank, a van that lets us go out and do visits to Chailey."
Subsequently I learn that Landport and Malling food banks have witnessed similar growth in demand. Bearing in mind that most of the recipients have families, many with young children, it's fair to assume that in any given week more than 200 Lewes residents are fed by this emergency provision. It's a similar picture across the country; the Trussell Trust, a church organisation that supports many of the UK's food banks, recently reported that the number of people receiving emergency food has risen almost 15-fold since 2010.
As I am asking Pearl for more detail as to why so many people are finding themselves in desperate need, she gets a fortuitously timed visit from Mike Cahill, manager of East Sussex County Council's Discretionary Support Scheme (a service of last resort for people literally on the breadline). He's possibly the perfect person to ask: Why are more and more people having to resort to emergency help with food?
"The biggest cause we're seeing is people having their benefits messed around with, the biggest by miles. Since October, when they started sanctioning more people's benefits, the demand has just jumped up."
Why would authorities choose to sanction the benefits of people who have little or nothing to fall back on?
"The biggest reason given is people apparently not attending medicals with Atos, even though some of these people are housebound and cannot attend, [in which cases] Atos have said, 'OK, well, we'll send someone to you', but then their benefits get stopped anyway. Or they have turned up [for a medical] and there's no one there, and their benefits are stopped anyway. It's shocking. They seem to have got a whole lot stricter."
Mike explains that he has seen a surge in people having welfare payments stopped at short notice for no legitimate reason and then having to wait days or even weeks to get the decision overturned - meanwhile unable to make ends meet. He has also seen an increase in claimants with ill health being told they must sign on for Jobseeker's Allowance and seek work - even though who are blatantly too unwell to do so.
"There was one person who had a lung problem where he couldn't lie down. If he lay down, he was going to die. He had to sleep sitting up. And they told him he was fit for work, and they stopped his money."
At the same time, council support services are falling victim to ongoing budget cuts; funding allocated to Mike's own scheme, which was £1.2m for the current year, is being slashed to zero from next April. And his scheme is one of the luckier ones. "East Sussex County Council is doing what they can to keep it going and trying to find the funds elsewhere, but across the country it's going to have a massive impact."
Mike tells me he has worked in welfare provision for more than 20 years. Are these the most pernicious reforms he has seen implemented?
"Oh yes, by miles. Most changes that have happened in that 20 years, they sort of make sense. Jobseeker's Allowance, for example, makes sense [in principle]... Tax credits, yeah, maybe. Now, though, [payments] just seem to be cut - without thinking about the effect it will have." And the system for claimants may be about to get even more bewildering. "Universal credit is coming, and in theory it's logical, but rolling up benefits into a monthly payment including the housing benefit that would have been going [directly] to the landlord, that's going to get very confusing for people."
Lewes food banks welcome donations.