Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: 'This Christmas, we're far beyond the choice between eating or heating'

Food bank manager Charlotte White takes us behind the scenes at Earlsfield Foodbank, where guests are increasingly desperate as winter sets in.

Earlsfield Food bank volunteers sort donations

Volunteers at Earlsfield food bank sort donations. Image Charlotte White

Since I’ve been running Earlsfield Foodbank, December has always been the busiest month of the year. Guest numbers reach their highest point as people struggle with energy costs and Christmas expenses. To cope with the high demand, like all food banks around the country, our fundraising must go into overdrive.

For the last few years, we’ve produced a “Reverse Advent Calendar” where people can donate a different essential item every day in December. It gives us the opportunity to stock up on our most-needed items, not just for Christmas, but for the new year when donations tend to drop.

In previous years we’ve asked for Christmas-related items such as festive crackers, packets of bread sauce and jars of cranberry sauce. We stopped this last year. Not all our guests celebrate Christmas, plus what good are the Christmas trimmings if you don’t have the basics? 

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A comment from guest Danielle really brought this home “the bread sauce is all well and good, but my daughter doesn’t have any shoes”.

The ideal is to give people money or vouchers, so they can choose what they need. Doing this restores some of the dignity which poverty has taken away. 

At last week’s food bank session, the conversation was not about Christmas, but mainly about heating, or lack of. Everyone is cold and fearing the sub-zero temperatures that had been predicted for the weekend.

Heating has become a scant resource, with many people carefully calculating when they’ll most need to put it on, worried about using up the limited funds on their pre-paid meter too soon. Some guests refer to heating as a treat. As one guest puts it: “I’ll treat us all to an hour this Saturday, when it’s really freezing”.

And for some people, it’s beyond that. Rather than a treat, it’s a luxury item, that can’t even be considered. Kevin: “I don’t even think about it now, I just can’t do it on my money. Blankets, jumpers, coats on all the time – this is the only way”.

On Friday, we receive a message from a desperate guest, Jennifer, facing a weekend with no heating at all: “I have my grandson this weekend and our flat is freezing. Please help”.

We’re able to give Jennifer an energy voucher, which can be redeemed immediately.  This is thanks to a local scheme, the Earlsfield Local Leveller, which redistributes the £400 given to every household towards energy costs. Not everyone needs that money so the Leveller encourages people to hand it on, just for cases like Jennifer’s.

There has been much discussion this year about the dilemma people face between “eating or heating”.  From what we’ve seen at the food bank in recent weeks, we’re far beyond that now. Many people can afford to do neither. If you’re on a low income and something goes wrong – a benefit sanction or deduction, promised work hours that don’t materialise or an urgent, unforeseen expense – you can be left with nothing at all. Forget about eating or heating, you will be starving AND freezing.

More needs to be done, and more needs to be done urgently. We are in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis on our own doorsteps, and its consequences are and will continue to be devastating.

So, if you would like to help your food bank this Christmas, financial donations are most welcome. Food banks can offer a range of support including vouchers, cash grants and the types of food that might be needed most.

But please write to your MP as well, urging action on long-term sustainable solutions, so that this time next year we’re in a better position. We want to see a country where people can put food on the table and heat their homes. The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has produced a simple template to make this action as easy as possible. 

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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