“I was a bit nervy about going to the event,” Emma says. “I knew nothing about the Bank of England and what they do. Members of school staff encouraged parents to come along and assured us that they would be there as well. But I thought it was amazing. There was so much information that parents didn’t know and now they do, and everyone got an opportunity to have their say.”
There were plenty of things to say. Newport contains the largest number of deprived areas in all of Wales, and the community around Maindee Primary School is being hit hard by the current cost of living crisis. “People are all in the same boat.” Emma says, “Everyone’s struggling. Parents. Teachers. Everyone.”
Emma believes that the Bank’s decision to hold the event in a space people knew, and felt comfortable in, was important to getting a good turnout and lively conversation. She told me that being paid a token amount for her time also helped. “That made such a difference. I can't afford the extra nice things my daughter wanted because I wasn’t going to get paid until the week after.”
On Thursday and Friday afternoons, Emma volunteers at Big Bocs Bwyd (“Big Food Box”), which is in the Maindee School’s grounds. Big Bocs Bwyd is a grant-funded programme which started as a food shop in Cadoxton School in Barry before spreading to other schools across the country. It has two key emphasises: affordability and sustainability. Community members pay £4 or less for bags of food that would cost £20 or £30 at the supermarket. Waste is minimised. It’s open to everyone, regardless of their income, to minimise stigma.
Unsurprisingly, given the ongoing cost of living crisis, the shop is popular. “We opened a couple of months ago, and we did our biggest day ever last week,” Emma explains. “People come here from all over Newport, from all walks of life. Staff use it, parents use it, children use it.” One of the biggest barriers the shop is trying to break down is the struggle some people have with asking for help. Emma says she used to be the same way. “Asking for help made me feel I’m not coping as a parent. But it’s not an embarrassment.” That’s why she is making Big Bocs Bwyd into a safe place with a safe face, where people can go and know they won’t be judged.
It helps that Emma can relate to how these people feel. Life hasn’t been easy for her. She grew up in foster care, is a single mum, and has struggled with her mental health for years. Having always had limited means meant she learnt to budget from a young age and has always been diligent about what she spends, but that still wasn’t always enough to make her money stretch throughout the month: “I’ve had days where I’ve gone without eating so my child can eat.”
Now inflation and the cost-of-living crisis is adding more financial pressure. “Prices in shops are ridiculous. On TV they always say they’ve price dropped but it’s not enough. I get that businesses are struggling but so are families. When I was 16 and living in a hostel, I learnt to live off £8 a day. But I wouldn’t be able to do that now.”
Emma tells us it is a relief to cash-strapped parents like her that the Welsh Government provides free school meals to primary school students. But she suggests parents need other options. “My little girl can be a terror at lunchtime,” Emma explains. “She wants something specific.” That’s where the Big Bocs Bwyd shop can really help - if her daughter refuses to eat the meal that the school provides, Emma can feel confident that she can still afford something for her child to eat. That’s the best thing about the shop generally, Emma thinks. “It means children here get food.”
But it's not just about food. Emma talks about the difference that Big Bocs Bwyd makes by providing affordable hygiene products - toothbrushes, toothpaste, menstrual products - to people, especially teenagers, who don’t otherwise have ready access to those things and are embarrassed about it.
“It’s ridiculous to have to spend that [supermarket prices] money on them. And then there’s the complexity of the language - we have a lot of people here where English isn’t their first language. Teenagers start stealing products because they’re embarrassed. But here they know me and can ask me. They don’t even have to speak - they can just point.”
Clothing is another area of concern for parents like Emma. Her daughter has medical issues which means she always needs extra changes of clothes. “I need to budget around that even more, need to make sure my child has what she needs, so she’s not treated differently.” She says she is lucky that the school runs a scheme where parents can get a full uniform for free. That was a lifeline for Emma when personal circumstances meant she had to move to the area in a hurry a couple of years ago. “I moved within 24 hours, and because I had to pay moving costs, I didn’t have any money for a new uniform,” she says.
Hearing Emma talk about all the ways the community here helps each other is heart-warming. Community Focused School Manager Martine Smith emphasises the difference the shop and Emma make to local people’s lives. “We couldn’t do it without her,” Martine says. “The school hasn’t got the capacity to staff this themselves.” Emma’s Big Bocs Bwyd recently won the Food Sustainability Category at the GAVO Volunteer Awards 2023.
Emma says the scheme has helped her as much as she’s helped it. “On the days when I’m working it almost puts my mental health struggles on the back burner. It’s a routine – when I’m having a rubbish week, it gives me focus.”
If you have found this article thought-provoking and feel like you could offer additional experiences and perspectives, and represent your peers, perhaps joining the Citizens’ Panel could be something exciting and rewarding for you.