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Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: ‘Last week we registered a 91-year-old man’

Food bank Manager Charlotte White details the growing sense of crisis among clients and volunteers at her venue in Earlsfield.

Another busy morning at the food bank. Our team are so worried about what we’re seeing currently and where it will go from here. Last week we registered a 91-year-old man. During the interview, he shook his head and said “in all my life, I’ve never taken from charity. Not once. But there’s nothing left now after the bills”.

Week after week we have more and more guests visiting us, with more heart-breaking stories. It’s the same at food banks across the country. Our food bank is part of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) and we regularly share experiences and concerns alongside other independent food banks. We’re all feeling the strain and are desperately worried about the future.

Our food bank was founded in 2013 and is a small one, operating just one morning a week. We’re based in south west London, in a relatively affluent area. Four-bedroom houses sell for over a million pounds here. Yet we are seeing our numbers rocket, and problems explode. Two years ago, a busy week would have meant supporting 30 households at the food bank. Now we regularly have 100 or more. And following the inadequacy of the Spring Statement, the cut to universal credit, and cost-of-living increases spiralling out of control, we know numbers will inevitably continue to grow.

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As our guest numbers rise, we are seeing changes in the types of people seeking our help. We have far more families than before as well as people with mortgages – something we never would have seen a year ago. And perhaps the most alarming trend is the number of people in work. In a recent session, fifty percent of our guests had work of some sort. We support delivery drivers, hospital workers, carers, warehouse packers. They need the food bank as their wages are too low and/or their hours insecure. Some are entitled to benefits, but with an irregular income, navigating this sort of help can be a minefield. Many fear being hit with crippling deductions if they get the form filling wrong.

Most of our new registrations have never visited a food bank before. Taking the step to visit us is a very difficult one – we often see people wait at the gate before coming in. Some can’t quite take that step inside and don’t actually make it across the threshold that week. One week we saw a new guest hide in a hedge in the garden outside – she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a familiar face.

There’s always a short registration interview for new guests. This enables us to understand why people need a food bank and how we might help and support. This is always a difficult, emotional conversation.  We frequently hear these phrases: “I’ve let my family down”; “I always managed before”; “We just can’t make it work at the moment”. It’s heart-breaking to hear guests admonish themselves, when, in reality, it’s circumstances beyond their control, a broken system that’s to blame.

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As well as the increase in numbers, we’re concerned about how we can maintain a supply of food. We’ve started to cut back on distributing certain items regularly. The cost-of-living crisis affects everyone and is impacting our donation levels. We ask for donations through our website and weekly social media callouts, but we’ve noticed a downturn, especially as many (understandably) are supporting the Ukraine relief efforts. Many of our supporters apologise that they can’t afford to give as much or as frequently anymore. And we have new guests that tell us they were previously donors.

Our sessions depend on the generosity and capacity of around fifty volunteers, with up to twenty working in an individual session. Their hard work and kind spirit keeps our food bank going. Some of our volunteers are guests themselves, and their lived experience provides valuable insight on how to adapt and evolve our operation.

However, working in a food bank, particularly at this challenging time, can take its toll emotionally. We are not professionals, we are untrained, and more is being asked of us every week. There is a limit both in terms of food supply and volunteers’ capacity to cope. As was pointed out at a recent IFAN members’ meeting, if we were working in any other job we’d go on strike. But, of course, as food bank teams, we can’t close our doors otherwise people would go hungry.

Alongside hundreds of other IFAN members, we will keep stressing that food banks are not the solution to growing poverty. The buck cannot stop at the doors of food banks. We’re campaigning for cash first, income-based solutions that will reduce the need for charitable food aid. Until people’s incomes increase, a relentless stream of people forced into poverty and destitution will be seeking out help. At the very least, the government must increase benefit levels in line with inflation this April.

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurity. 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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