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Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: Community initiatives are just plugging gaps in the system

Food bank manager Charlotte White looks at community initiatives springing up around the food bank — and laments that they’re needed at all.

The food bank has never been busier. The queue starts earlier every Thursday morning, and the phone never stops ringing throughout the week with new referrals and enquiries. One person tentatively rings to enquire about volunteer opportunities, but after a little chat, it turns out that she’s struggling financially. It’s food she really needs, she was just too embarrassed to say.

We’re in the bleakest of times and it’s difficult to feel hopeful about anything. But one ray of positivity is the growth of local community initiatives that help the food bank, the efforts of local people to make life that little bit easier for those in need.

One such initiative is the Earlsfield Local Leveller campaign, designed to redistribute the £400 energy rebate from the government – given to everyone – to those who need the money most. This was the idea of Earlsfield residents Steve Jones and Glyn Goodwin. Steve says that he got the idea the day the initiative was announced: “I was having a drink with friends that evening and we were all saying how it didn’t make much sense. We were all being given this money that none of us really needed. While at the same time others in our community were really struggling”.

The Leveller campaign asks people to donate money – the whole £400 or a smaller amount – to the food bank. Money raised through this stream will be used to purchase pre-paid fuel vouchers, which will then be given to food bank guests, £100 at a time.

Julia, a guest, says that this fuel support will be invaluable. “It’s the energy bills I worry about most.  I don’t put the oven on at all these days – just use the microwave and kettle. And I don’t dare put the heating on. We just sit in blankets every evening”.

Another incredible local community effort is the work of the Home Community Café, run by Meg Fry.  Meg set up the café five years ago, as a social enterprise CIC, or community interest company. The café is located within St. Andrew’s church, where the food bank operates. It closes for business every Thursday when the food bank is open and serves a cooked breakfast for every guest whilst they wait for their food parcel. The café staff work for free on that day. 

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The Home Café team also created the “pay it forward” initiative whereby food bank guests can come to the café any day in the week and have a pre-paid item, donated by another café customer. The mechanism is simple and discreet – guests go to the “Pay if Forward” noticeboard and take a receipt with the item they want. Lila, a regular guest says “These days I can never afford to go to a café.  But coming here for a cappuccino just makes me feel normal for a bit. I can forget everything else that’s going on.”

Meg was inspired to set this up when she became frustrated at the inequality around her “I wanted to create a space where everyone was welcome, that really reflected the diversity of our community and pulled in those from the margins. Food is a great leveller, so this is at the heart of our mission”.

The food bank also benefits from the fantastic work done by the Dons Local Action Group  (DLAG). The group was set up by three AFC Wimbledon fans in March 2020 when the Covid pandemic began, collecting and delivering food to vulnerable people who were self-isolating. The group has grown significantly over the last few years. They have collections at supermarkets across a wide area, distribute food to numerous food aid providers in the community, as well as doing deliveries directly to individuals in need. And they’ve expanded to provide furniture and technology.

DLAG has won numerous awards and have blazed a trail in this area. Now most football clubs have some sort of food aid programme attached to them.

These initiatives are truly inspiring. It’s wonderful to see community spirit harnessed in this way. But it’s also true that these initiatives are plugging gaps in the system, making up for the shortfalls in policy. What if initiatives like these were built on top of a well-funded, functioning system? That really would be something.

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurityTom Pollard recently spoke with people at the food bank  for his report on poverty, food banks and mental health in collaboration with IFAN and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. You can access IFAN’s cash first referral leaflets designed to help people facing worries access advice and support here. Take action and write to your MP using IFAN’s template letter here.

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