Activism

The accidental food bank: How youth clubs are becoming frontline services

In an old public toilet block in west London, a children's centre has found itself functioning as a food bank

The team at A.P.P.L.E have gradually found themselves becoming a vital lifeline for families. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Inside the old public toilets, kids are cracking eggs after school. 

“Have you looked at the recipe? Does it need eggs?” asks Sam Barker, the adult supervising. They’re making chocolate chip cookies and banana milkshakes. “Yeah but I know how to crack eggs well,” the child replies. Another child selects a couple of knives. You don’t need bread knives for chocolate, it turns out. Someone’s getting the blender. Tomatoes are going into a pan in the tiny kitchen. It’s just another afternoon at A.P.P.L.E, a youth club running in West London that’s found itself becoming a food bank.

An hour ago the block, in the corner of Acton Park, had been tranquil. Art lines the walls, including a painting made on the day it opened in 1996, when children traced over the shadows of leaves left by a camera obscura. “If you get rid of that the building will fall down,” jokes Vicki Barker, project coordinator, over a cup of tea and lemon drizzle cake.

Boxes and crates full of food piled around the room tell the story of how it’s changed. Originally starting out as a place for children to come after school, to cook, exist, and do art, A.P.P.L.E (Acton Play Projects & Leisure Events) is now regularly providing food parcels for families struggling to feed themselves.

It’s on the front line after a decade of austerity and cost of living crisis. The change has been gradual, Barker says.

“It has changed from, in the beginning, more of a leisure place, a youth club sort of thing, to actually backing up low-income families,” explains Barker, who founded A.P.P.L.E after the old youth centre she worked in across the park closed.

What began as children taking food after cooking sessions slowly became more formalised, resulting in regular deliveries of food from a charity.

“Cooking used to be an activity, and now it’s become more: we need to teach children to cook, how to cook economically, and those sorts of things, and we need to cook or provide food at most sessions because there’s a lot of children now that need food to eat,” says Barker.

Sam Barker in the 4sq ft kitchen. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Pinpointing when the change happened isn’t easy. David Thaddeus, the charity’s chair, noticed a sea change after the 2012 Olympics, and then again after Covid.

 “It’s a gradual thing. Ten years ago, you were doing the cooking here and then kids were taking it home anyway. So it’s just grown organically really. And Covid has been a catalyst,” he says.

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A.P.P.L.E’s story is a microcosm of the challenges children across the country are facing. The youth centre across the park isn’t the only one to have closed. In London, 130 of the capital’s almost 300 youth centres had disappeared in the decade to 2021. Nationwide, over 750 youth centres have shut their doors since 2010/11.

Meanwhile, ‘official’ food banks are increasingly stretched. With an estimated 11.3 million people in the UK facing hunger due to a lack of money, according to statistics by the Trussell Trust, more than ever are turning to food banks, leading to warnings the services are at breaking point.

And among that all, there’s the issue of how to feed children after school and during holidays. Every primary school pupil in London will be receiving free school meals for a year from September, thanks to £130 million in funding from Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. But this is a “one-off”, with funding for one year. Nationally, there are 1.7 million children in families poor enough to receive universal credit but not eligible for free school meals.

A.P.P.L.E’s storeroom will become a new, bigger kitchen. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

So is A.P.P.L.E – run by paid staff, an accidental food bank, but providing a necessary service – the best answer we have?

Halloween is always a highlight at A.P.P.L.E. Around 120 kids and parents will turn up, with a graveyard and games set up outside. There’s whack the rat, pumpkin decorating, a jelly fight, and a pinata. Thaddeus thinks back to one party, maybe four years ago. “It’s seared on my brain. Complete chaos – the make-up, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

The years can blur into one. Sam remembers another: “We did a spell where we raised a zombie, and the zombie had a top hat on but it’s full of jelly, and then they were just eating their brains and losing body function”.

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You might think there’s a contrast between the joy at the Halloween parties and the cold reality of families needing food to feed their children. But the atmosphere at A.P.P.L.E bridges the gap.

“People don’t feel that they’re only here because they’re poor and they’ve not got any food,” says Barker.

“The good thing is parents aren’t afraid to tell us they’re struggling, there’s no shame,” says Abigail Leitao. It’s a familiar atmosphere – Leitao has been coming for 22 years, first as a child, now as a member of staff. “I don’t think I ever really left,” she adds. Other staff are the same – they’ve just kept coming back.

Artwork has accumulated inside and outside A.P.P.L.E’s building over the years. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Overall, 23 families come to collect food from A.P.P.L.E, with 16 coming regularly. Food is provided by local charity City Harvest, while children and families also take leftover food cooked in the tiny, four-square-metre kitchen. On Saturdays, food cooked in the kitchen caters for 40 children.

Money comes from a range of insecure grants. Barker and her team are fundraising to turn the storeroom at the back of the building into a bigger kitchen. When completed, it will allow them to cook for more children, and let more children take part and learn important skills.

“The dream is that next Christmas we will have a kitchen in our storeroom,” says Barker.

Just like for the families it serves, getting by is hard for A.P.P.L.E itself. Being free and open to all narrows the range of grant funding the organisation can get, says Barker. They do not rely on grants which would mean they must only cater to certain groups. “If we’d been in council control, we would have been shut years ago,” Barker says. But the flipside is, she says, that “there’s no secure money”.

The financial situation came to a head in February, when Barker called an emergency meeting “because we were really down to almost one month’s wages.” The show goes on, however.

As we talk, Carise Norman pops in. She’s 36 and grew up coming here from the age of 10. Now her child comes, and she says it’s one of the few places still open.

“It’s not just about having somewhere to come, it’s the mindset it instils in children, to have a positive attitude, to feel confident and supported through art and sports,” she says.

“Trying to keep your identity is quite hard, having somewhere to come and to be able to be yourself, and grow and be independent, this is one of the very few,” Norman adds.

During this Leitao tells Barker: “I don’t think you realise how much you inspire people,” adding “you’re my inspiration personally.”

“I’m not”, Barker replies.

“You are though,” says Leitao.

“No I’m not. Because the idea is that you take it on, you all take it on, you all do the same thing now,” Barker says. The conversation goes on until, as if to highlight the need for a bigger kitchen, Barker exclaims: “Something’s burning!”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

A.P.P.L.E’s kitchen fundraiser can be found here.

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