Earlsfield Foodbank hit its peak of visitors in the first week of October this year. Image: The Big Issue
“I can’t eat because there is nothing to eat,” Jason says as he waits for his food parcel to be packaged up on his first visit to a food bank. It is dangerous for anyone to go hungry like he has in recent weeks, but it is especially worrying for a diabetic.
“My daughter saw I wasn’t in the best of health and suggested this place,” he remarks, gesturing to the bustle of Earlsfield Foodbank. “This is a godsend because, worst case, we can eat. The last few weeks have been a nightmare.”
Jason, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is one of hundreds of thousands of people being forced to turn to a food bank for the first time in the cost of living crisis.
Around 320,000 people used a Trussell Trust food bank for the first time between April and September this year. This does not include independent food banks like Earlsfield, which is seeing new faces each week.
“We have already hit our peak,” food bank manager Charlotte White says. “In the first week of October, we had more numbers than the highest week in the whole of last winter. And it wasn’t even cold. It has set alarm bells ringing.”
A line of people snakes outside the church in South London as early as 8am on Thursday morning, an hour and a half before it opens to guests. And it is not just the numbers worrying White.
She previously told The Big Issue people are turning to sex work and taking out dangerous loans before coming to a food bank. More are battling addiction and relapsing too.
“There’s a general feeling of hopelessness,” White says. “When we start a winter season, we’re not starting afresh. We’ve got all the problems that people were storing up last winter.”
“I think because people are dealing with so much more hostility in their life, we’re seeing that hostility,” she adds. “We’ve had fights outside. You can feel the tension of what people are going through much more. It’s there in the air. You can feel the difficulty.”
Almost every week, someone confesses suicidal feelings to White or one of the other volunteers. “I’m really worried about winter,” she says. “I’m worried about our guests and the numbers going up. I’m worried about our volunteers, because what we’re dealing with week after week is not what a lot of us signed up for.”
Food prices keep rising at worrying rates, up by more than 12% in September in comparison to the previous year. It is hitting people like Jason who are forced to turn to food banks to survive.
“It’s a reality check for me,” Jason says. “I’ve always been OK. I’ve worked for myself. But in the last two years, I’ve had a hell of a struggle. I’m disabled now. I’ve got my son living with me.”
Jason claims universal credit but, after rent, he is left with just £37 to cover food and bills. “Gas and electricity is a struggle,” he adds. “As a diabetic, I have to eat to take my insulin. I can’t eat because there is nothing to eat.
“I went to the doctors a couple of days ago and I know it’s not good. I can’t take my insulin so it’s been a rough ride. But you’ve got to keep your spirits up.”
Around 3 million adults reported not eating for a whole day because they couldn’t afford or access food in June this year, the Food Foundation found. Nearly half of households on universal credit struggled to afford food.
Jonathan, another food bank guest and father of four, says: “I got sick so I needed to sign on. I found myself having to finance my whole family and I just couldn’t afford it on benefits.”
Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust found that universal credit claimants are £35 short of the money they need to live each week.
The charities want the government to introduce an ‘essentials guarantee’ so benefits claimants can afford the basics they need to survive. Without this, food banks are overwhelmed.
The tables at Earlsfield Foodbank are filled with people chatting or sitting quietly together as they tuck into pastries. “I don’t get out,” Jason says. “This looks like somewhere to socialise. These people are godsends. It’s eye-opening.”
This is echoed by other food bank guests. A woman who has asked to remain anonymous tears up as she says: “I’m really happy they let me come. I feel like crying. I am so happy.”
It is her first time at a food bank too. Earlsfield Foodbank is out of her catchment area – but there are familiar faces too and some who return after months or even years.
“Probably saddest of all, we’re seeing people we hadn’t seen in a while, sometimes for as long as three years,” White says. “Straight away from seeing them you know life hasn’t gone well. They look slightly different and you know they have had a really tough time.
“Being poor in this country or living in poverty, it’s like snakes and ladders. We can do everything to get ourselves up, but there’s just so many snakes and so many little things that can go wrong and then suddenly you’re back at rock bottom again.
“But it is worse than rock bottom because it’s so much more difficult to get yourself out of that situation, because things are so much more expensive. There’s less support available.”
Last year, the government introduced an energy rebate but that is not being repeated this year, and cost of living payments are not stretching far enough to help benefits claimants who are struggling to survive.
Another guest at the food bank, Mark, says: “In the 49 years of my life, I have never seen life like this. It is not getting any easier.”
His rent is currently covered by the council but if he went back to work he would have to pay it in full, and it is more than £1,000 each month.
“I can’t find a job to cover the rent and live,” he says. “It’s utter madness. I want to get back to work again. I’m going nuts. I’ve been walking about six miles a day to try and think up a solution. I think I am going to have to move out of London.”
Food bank guest and volunteer Eman also worries about how she will live. “I am a mother of two children,” she says, as she remembers coming to the food bank for the first time. “I didn’t have anything.”
The 63-year-old trained in electronic engineering and now helps in a lab, but her wages are not enough. “I can’t pay for everything,” she says. “I get help with food. I applied for universal credit. Housing is a lot and water, gas and electricity. How can I live?”
Many of the food bank guests have children who rely on them. New research from the Trussell Trust has revealed that more than 265,000 children needed food banks to survive between April and September this year.
And around 1 million children were living in destitution last year, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Debbie started coming to the food bank just two weeks ago, after her granddaughter moved in. “It’s been a struggle,” she says. Bills have shot up with another person in the house.
“Somebody told me about this place and I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Everybody’s so nice. The workers here are great people. They gave me flowers and I was over the moon. It was a lovely bunch of roses. They were beautiful.”
But the food bank needs help. “We’re doing a massive fundraiser at the moment because we’re worried about our supplies, because our costs have really gone up,” White says, explaining that they spend at least £800 each week on topping up their supplies.
“In the past, we got everything from just asking people to donate food and that was our safety net. Now we’ve been supplementing that with a weekly shop.”
“But then I think that couldn’t have been rock bottom, because this is. It just gets worse. We can work hard. We can double on volunteers and double on funds. But at the end of the day, we need change at the top.”