Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: 'The situation is becoming more and more desperate'

Charlotte White manages Earlsfield Foodbank and says the issues people are having to juggle just to get by are stacking up more than ever.

Volunteers pack bags to be given to service users at the food bank which operates weekly at St Andrew’s Church, in Earsfield. Image: Mary Turner

Another busy morning at the food bank. A long queue had formed before we even opened the doors and a steady flow continued throughout the three-hour session. A fight broke out outside between two guests after an argument escalated. It was dealt with quickly and no-one was hurt, but this worrying turn of events added to an overall sense that the wheels are coming off. The situation is becoming more and more desperate.

Much of the current discourse around food banks focuses on rising numbers, but there are several other changes we’ve noticed in the last few months that go hand in hand with the food parcel figures.

First, the complexity of people’s problems. Guests are coming in with so many different issues relating to poverty – many more than before. We aim to refer to relevant support services, but the first step is often unravelling the issues and knowing where to even start.

Take Carrie, one of our new guests: she is struggling with her housing – it is damp and there’s lots of dust from unfinished repair work. This has caused her son’s asthma to worsen, and as a result, he’s frequently off school. This has created school attendance issues, which is deepening Carrie’s anxiety. And then the DWP is chasing her regarding her employment search – she has had to miss interviews due to needing to take care of her.

“I don’t know where to begin,” she told me. “I’ve tried to sort the housing, but I’m always told someone will call back. I’m stuck in a circle”.

We’ve also noticed a real change in the frequency with which we’re seeing people. As well as a rapid increase in new guests, occasional and infrequent visitors are now becoming regulars, many needing our support every week. It’s especially saddening when we see guests who had stopped using the food bank but now can’t avoid needing our help.

Last month we saw the return of Colin, a guest we hadn’t seen since last June. He’d managed to pay off his debts and was doing OK. Now with the universal credit cut and soaring bills, he’s back to where he started and knows it’ll get worse.

“We’re spending all our money on gas and electric,” he said. “We can’t do food as well… I’m worried we’ll need to borrow again, just to feed the kids.”

It’s like an evil game of Snakes and Ladders – the number of snakes on the board is growing and the ladders are rapidly being pulled away.

Perhaps the most worrying change is the urgency with which guests need help. We’re used to seeing people who have little money and not much food in the cupboard. But we now see people who have nothing at all. Some guests come in literally starving – food parcels are opened, and food consumed straight away. Hearing stories of the choices and sacrifices needed to get by is heart-breaking. Throughout winter we regularly saw the “eating vs heating” dilemma. Now we also hear of missed meals and tiny portions. Or parents choosing not to eat so that their children can. 

We recently delivered some food to a new family. A six-year-old girl answered the door with her mother and on seeing the food parcel: “Look Mummy, we can have dinner tonight!”

And Earlsfield Foodbank is just one of hundreds of independent food banks struggling with increasing numbers across the country. On our regular IFAN (Independent Food Aid Network) calls, every food bank tells similar stories and everyone is desperately worried about what the future holds. It is a very different situation to the one we faced 12 months ago, when, as lockdown ended, we felt a little bit of hope. Usually at this time of year the numbers lighten up a bit, as heating bills come down. But it’s May and numbers are steadily growing. What on earth will the rest of the year bring?

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