Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: 'This year, there has been no lull. Just a steady increase'

Food bank manager Charlotte White is on the front lines of the cost of living crisis and normally sees a drop in the summer. Not this year.

Volunteers at the food bank try to give additional support as well as the functional provision of food. Image: Kyle Isitt

We’re midway through August and the demand for food aid continues to rise at a worrying pace. New referrals are consistently high at food banks across the country, including ours. 

This week our new guests include: a single parent who can’t afford the daily packed lunch he needs to provide for his child’s school holiday camp; an 80-year old who can no longer see out the month on his pension; two Ukrainian refugee families; a working father of four; and a 52-year old cancer patient, struggling with aggressive treatment, but declared fit to work by the DWP and therefore not receiving benefits. 

And as well as these new guests, we’re seeing the return of so many previous guests – some of whom we haven’t seen for years. Many tell us that they’ve been trying to do without the food bank.

“I’ve tried for as long as possible to stick it out. I didn’t want to come back, but we’ve reached rock bottom” says Amara, a guest we’d last seen at the beginning of the pandemic.

This level of demand at this time of year is particularly concerning. We would usually expect numbers to go up in September after a summer lull. But, this year, there has been no lull, just a steady increase. And other IFAN independent food banks are telling a similar story.

This increasing need also requires us to change the way we operate. We used to have one volunteer allocated to filling out new registration forms, but we now have so many arrivals in one session that we’re training up other volunteers to welcome new guests. It’s vital that the registration interview is an un-rushed, kind conversation. Finding out what additional support may be needed and directing people to relevant agencies is more important than providing an emergency food parcel. An emergency supply of food does not resolve financial crisis and can only act as a temporary sticking plaster. Finding a way to increase a guest’s income can make a long-term difference.

The stories of why people need food aid are soul-destroying. And the sacrifices that people are making as costs increase and problems compound are becoming more extreme. 

Take J, an occasional guest we’re used to seeing every few months when money gets really tight and always as a last resort. She recently came in, extremely upset, looking frail and exhausted. She hadn’t eaten for three whole days (the food she did have in the house she’d given to her teenage daughter).  It turned out that her benefits had been stopped suddenly. It was a fiddly issue to resolve, requiring multiple calls, forms and waiting on hold. Difficult at any time, but especially difficult when hungry, exhausted with no data on your phone.

As the situation deteriorates for people struggling on low incomes across the country, it’s vital far more action is taken. This week, alongside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and many other charities, IFAN has signed a joint letter to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss urging them to pledge that “everyone who needs it will be properly supported when they hit hard times. This means ensuring that, at a minimum, the social security system always provides people with enough to be able to afford the essentials.”

Finally, it was a particularly sad week as we learnt of the sudden death of David, one of our long-term, regular guests. David struggled with addiction for much of his life, but in recent years had been in recovery and seemed happy and settled. He’d just moved into supported housing, which suited him after years of rough sleeping and hostels. He was well-liked by volunteers and guests; always ready for a long, in-depth conversation, ranging from his beloved Chelsea’s prospects for the new season, climate change or the best way to make coffee (he loved coffee… if ever a special type was donated, we’d always put it aside for him). Rest in Peace, David. It was a pleasure to know you.

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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