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Social Justice

‘People will starve’: Food bank volunteers and guests fear ‘breaking point’ as the cost of living crisis spirals

The Big Issue visited a London food bank to discover the realities of life on the front line of the cost of living crisis

Each Thursday, 86-year-old Norman arrives at Earlsfield Foodbank earlier than it opens because he likes to avoid the crowds. It is bustling even before doors open at 9:30am, volunteers weighing and organising donated food and toiletries into the large blue crates. Norman watches quietly from a seat near the back of the church, waiting for the moment he can pick up his package. 

“My story is a very sad story,” he says. A retired chef who grew up in poverty in South Africa before leaving for London in the 1960s, Norman adores cooking for his family and neighbours. But he cannot afford to feed himself and, for the last few months, he has relied on the food bank to survive. “No one came. No one asked me how I was coping. No one. I was very unsettled up until now.”

Outside, a queue of people begins to snake out of the church and into the garden. Some chat enthusiastically among themselves, as though meeting old friends, while others keep to themselves and seem anxious to get in and out quickly. Friday (September 2) is National Food Bank Day – but this means little to these people who have reached breaking point.

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More than 80 guests are expected to arrive at the food bank, and it can reach well over 100 on the most hectic days. Before the pandemic, a busy day would see around 25 to 30 people. 

This spike in demand follows the national trends. The Independent Food Aid Network’s most recent survey found that nearly 90 per cent of organisations have seen demand rise since April 2022. By comparison, 72 per cent of organisations reported that donations to food banks have dropped since April of this year while more than half had needed to dip into reserves to pay for supplies.

Inflation passing 10 per cent and astronomical energy bills are pushing both service users and volunteers to the brink. And it’s always the vulnerable who suffer first.

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Image of volunteers/ Food bank
Volunteers working hard at the food bank on Thursday morning. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

“I’m just terrified of what is happening,” the food bank manager, Charlotte White, says. “June and July have been our busiest over the last 18 months, which is terrifying as we usually get very quiet in the summer. We’re noticing lots of new guests, but we’re also seeing lots of people that we haven’t seen in ages – people that we helped get back on their feet and helped solve their problems. And now, they just can’t get by.

“We also have people coming in saying: ‘This time last year I used to donate to you, and now I need you.’ We’ve got more families than before. There’s a real shift. It’s a huge crisis that is looming. It’s not just a case of people having little – it’s people having nothing. People will starve. People are going to get seriously ill. We’ve already seen horrific things. We’ve seen children sleeping in coats. We’ve seen children going without food. We’re just going to see that magnified.”

Halfway through the morning, a volunteer announces that they’ve run out of toilet paper and are having to rip it up to share it between guests. They are running on the goodwill of volunteers and people donating food – but, as more and more struggle with the cost of living themselves, White worries about how the food bank is going to manage moving forward. 

“We can just about cope at the moment,” she says, “but we’re not equipped for if demand doubles or triples as I expect it will do this winter.”

Elaine/ Food bank
Elaine has not used heating for three years because she cannot afford it. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

One guest, 66-year-old Elaine, has not put on the heating in her home for three years because she can’t afford her bills. “I don’t have anything now to live on,” Elaine says as she describes her worries amid the cost of living crisis. “Coming here has helped, but I have no money. If I wasn’t coming here, I wouldn’t have anything to live on.”

Elaine gets a pension but, with mental and physical health problems, she has no way of making any income. “The cost is going up and up, and I know I won’t be able to pay for the electricity, so I’m going to have to get lights with batteries.”

Campaigners and charities have warned the government is not doing nearly enough to help vulnerable people like Elaine amid the cost of living crisis. Ministers promised a £650 cost of living support package for people on benefits, on top of the £400 offered to every household to help with rising costs.

But, by January, energy bills alone are forecast to be higher than the standard allowance for people on universal credit. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the government will need to at least double its support for low-income families so that they can afford the basics like heating their homes and buying food. 

White says they are seeing so much suffering among guests like Elaine and Norman. Guests are arriving in tears because they have reached breaking point. Some have gone days without food and have waited until they were practically starving before reaching out for help, because there is so much shame still associated with going to a food bank. 

“I’m blown away by just the courage and the bravery and what people go through to keep themselves and their families going,” White adds. “It’s so difficult for people, some having several jobs and also just the awful admin of trying to get through our benefits system and trying to do that when you’re hungry and exhausted.”

Food bank volunteers
The food bank is a large operation. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

The Earlsfield Foodbank is a big operation. They have a security guard at the entrance, representatives from charities such as Family Action, a drugs and alcohol outreach officer at St Mungo’s and Citizens Advice. There is a café where guests are given a full cooked breakfast and a chance to socialise at the beautifully decorated tables in St Andrews Church. 

Doreen, a volunteer at the food bank for over a decade, says: “We get such joy in helping people in this food bank. We have such comradeship and we really have love for each other and the people that come in.” 

But, White points out, there should not be a need for food banks. People should never reach the crisis point of having to survive off donations. It’s a sign that they have been failed by the system, she says, and fears National Food Bank Day, intended to encourage people to donate to food banks, could inadvertently fuel their normalisation. 

“I had a real problem with it,” she says. “It is a sector now. In fact, it’s a fast-growing sector. But all the business around food banks is wrong. We should be eradicating it – it should only ever be a temporary thing. I don’t feel easy when I hear the term National Food Bank day at all.”

Asked how the public could help amid the crisis, to give a better chance to people like Norman and Elaine, White adds: “Please donate, but write your MP as well. A big worry of mine is the more we do and the more we take the slack, the more that we’re relied upon. And we’re not the answer. Bigger intervention is needed. I always feel that we’re guilty, that we’re part of the problem. We’re complicit in making food banks be the solution to poverty, when really it can only ever be a sticking plaster.”

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