Our Forgotten Neighbours run a soup kitchen in Finsbury Park and Tower Hamlets. Image: Our Forgotten Neighbours
North London’s Finsbury Park has hosted some of the biggest names in music over the decades: Bob Dylan, Arctic Monkeys, A$AP Rocky. But, over winter, there is a different reason for the blaring music and snaking line of people at the gates. They are queuing up for a food bank.
This is a quietly extraordinary street kitchen that — somehow, incredibly — has an atmosphere of joy. Husband and wife duo Victoria and Vincent Barnett lead a team of smiling volunteers, with stacks of food laid out on the foldable tables in front of them. A DJ blasts music and they hand out raffle ticket numbers to people waiting to collect their meals.
Food banks are often a last resort for people who have reached breaking point. We hear stories of people delving into bins or starving themselves for days before asking for help. There are likely thousands – if not millions – of people going hungry in the UK who will not go to a food bank.
There are practical hurdles too. People often need a referral, such as from Citizens Advice or the council, which can be intimidating for marginalised people not used to the bureaucracy and routines of local government. Few food banks would turn people away, but there can be an undertone of sterile formality and admitting defeat. Besides, some might not feel comfortable going into a church or council building.
“We have the DJ because it creates a nice atmosphere,” Vincent says. “We don’t ask people for personal details. We don’t ask you to sign up or for any identification. A lot of it is word of mouth.”
People start queuing up as early as eight in the morning, six hours before food starts to be distributed, a bleak sign of their desperation. And demand is only growing in the cost of living crisis.
“We’re seeing an increase in local residents who are working but only just covering their bills,” Victoria says. “They cannot afford food, so that’s why they’re turning up at the soup kitchen. That seems to be increasing rapidly.”
The couple set up their first soup kitchen in Tower Hamlets just over two years ago. They had been walking home on a freezing evening in Whitechapel, laughing about the takeaway they were going to order when they got in, when they came across a homeless man in tears.
“I approached him and asked if there was anything I could do,” Victoria says. “He was hungry and homeless and he told me about his story. His father passed away and he was struggling with addiction. He was lonely and felt no one was there to help him. We got him some food, and I just sat there crying with him.”
The guilt and sadness started eating at Victoria. Her husband, who worked in the charity sector, asked her what she wanted to do about her longing to make a difference. It was at that moment Victoria decided she wanted to feed people. So they put some money together and started buying food and toiletries and set up a little soup kitchen in the nearby borough of Tower Hamlets. Word spread and demand grew quickly.
They established the grassroots organisation Our Forgotten Neighbours, built a team of volunteers and eventually started a second street kitchen in Finsbury Park. Victoria has her own printing business, but the food banks now take up much of her time. They get donations from supermarkets like Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and they fundraise with support from the community.
A stack of clothes is draped over the park fence, warm winter coats which people take for themselves or their families. More recently, they have started connecting people to counselling services if they need support for their mental health.
There’s a real sense of community, with both Vincent and Victoria having grown up in nearby Islington. Victoria’s 73-year-old dad drives the van and goes around London collecting food. “He’s brought me up on his own since I was 18-months-old,” she says. “He will do anything for anyone. He is a very big part of the organisation.”
But there’s an underlying frustration that their efforts shouldn’t be necessary. In Victoria’s words, the government “needs to do a hell of a lot more because people are struggling”. But where politicians and authorities are failing to find homes for people forced onto the streets or employers aren’t paying staff enough for them to eat, grassroots organisations like this are saving lives.
“The people who have nothing are the most generous,” Victoria says. “People who live in the ivory tower don’t recognise what’s going on or address it. They just get on with their lives. They need to come onto the street and see how people are living. It is very difficult and very lonely.
“There are people sleeping on the street outside our front doors. They are our neighbours too. We can’t forget about them. They are living human beings. We need to pull together and help these people.”
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