This has been a campaign hosted on JustGiving.com to raise money to support food banks in nearby deprived areas.
Thank you very much for making this crowdfunding effort a big success. I started out hoping to raise £2,000, but you all generously pushed the total to over £10,000.
This is my report on how your money has been spent.
But first, special thanks to:
- Rosalind Ugwu and the staff at the Barbican Estate Office
- Robert Gricia, a local teacher at Central Foundation Boys’ School
- Nicola Lee of Nicola Lee estate agents
- Lisa Misior and Kinga Stoklos of House Proud cleaning company
- John Keller of Jarvis Keller estate agents
They have all helped to make this successful.
Since you gave money on the basis of my pitch in my crowdfunding page, there were two rules I felt I ought to stick to: divide the money equally between Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and make sure the funds will be spent on food, not on administrative expenses. I have chosen three foodbanks – one in each borough – and given them £3,330 approximately each. That was all the money I had collected at the time, but I have received a bit more since, which I will probably split between them as well.
I have visited all the food banks and talked to the people who run them and met volunteers. They are remarkable and generous-spirited people who don’t see themselves as doing anything out of the ordinary, although they really are. It is as uplifting to know that our country is full of such decent and determined people, as it is dispiriting to see the tide of desperation they are trying to hold back.
Bow Food Bank, Tower Hamlets
Bow Food Bank was my choice for Tower Hamlets. They run a food bank in Bow and another in Bethnal Green. Their website is. www.bowfoodbank.org. They are the largest food bank provider I have chosen.
They support 750 to 800 households per week. To give you some idea of the current crisis, this is up from 200 to 250 households in the summer. In mid-2022, 90% the people they were helping were out of work or on benefits. Now a huge proportion of their ‘guests’ are actually in work, but in low-income jobs, such as drivers, nurses, cleaners and people on zero hour contracts. A particular problem in Tower Hamlets is families with several children. You only get benefits for two children.
They don’t hand out standardised packages. Each one is tailored for each individual family. Food combinations have to be chosen to take account of people who have allergies, or medical conditions like diabetes, or have religious or cultural food issues. Some food parcels have to be entirely of dried goods because the family has no access to electricity, or they are for pensioners who don’t know how to cook. Pot noodles are often the best worst choice where there is electricity for boiling a kettle but little more.
All these requirements are individually tailored for. This means that people who need help have to be registered in some way with the food bank, so that their food can be prepared in advance. Bow Food Bank has a sophisticated computerised system with all the guests in a database recording exactly what choices need to be made for their individual food parcel. This requires a lot of work and they have 200 regular volunteers and a further 500 they can call on when needed.
They limit people to 12 visits a year. The idea is that people ought to be able to get themselves onto benefits within three months. The 12 visits a year limit does not apply to people with no recourse to public funds and cannot get benefits. They don’t count the 12 times a year during December, January and February for people over 65, because those are particularly bad months for heating costs. They particularly try to help young people in supported housing because they get far fewer benefits than others.
As well as giving out food, they also give benefits advice, fuel advice, and advice about using pay-as-you-go meters. They hold surgeries to help people write CVs, and help them with job searches. In April there hoping to set up a specialist unit for over 65’s where they can come and have tea and a cake, talk to others to combat loneliness, and even have cooking classes.
All your money will go to food. Their running expenses are separately covered by grant funding from central and local government.
Saying it all runs like a well-oiled military machine may not be the best metaphor, but having seen it in operation, I was amazed by the efficiency and the lack of waste. An army of kindness would be a fair description.
ARC Community Centre, Islington
This is my choice for Islington. Their website is www.thearccentre.org/foodbank.
When the community centre saw how some local families were suffering during Covid they started delivering food to about 12 local families. As the food crisis developed, they asked Islington Council how they could help, and the council said ‘set up a food bank’, so they did. They get no council funding. It’s all a community project.
They serve 100 households at the moment. They have another 20 on a waiting list, which they would like to help, but they don’t have enough money. 100 households is about 270 people.
Like Bow Food Bank, they operate from a registered list so they can tailor the packages to individual needs. The families confirm on a Monday, and then the volunteers make up a box for collection on Tuesday to suit each household. They are mainly collections, but some are delivered. They have about 40 to 50 volunteers. Every Tuesday, a representative from Age UK comes and helps people with applications for benefits and grants.
The ARC is supported principally by three charities who deliver food to them. Mostly, they get ‘ambient food’ which is rice, tins etc. They also get food from restaurants. To provide a proper balanced diet, they buy milk, eggs and bread as needed. Some of these are donated. But they usually have to make up the quantities. 50 loaves may be donated one week, but only 10 the next. So then they have to go to Sainsbury’s to buy what’s needed for the week’s packages. These weekly shopping costs have gone up a lot. In November they were paying about £170 for a supply of eggs, but now £205.
On one of the days when I visited, they were short of fresh fruit, and they were buying apples at Sainsbury’s to make up the parcels. Your money will generally get used for these weekly top-ups of essential food stuffs.
I like ARC Community Centre because they are trying to pursue so many good but quirky ideas, like teaching people to grow their own vegetables, and setting up little community gardens on neglected spaces. They are doing good with a bit of joy attached.
The biggest player in the food bank world is the Trussell Trust. Most of the bigger food banks seem to come under its umbrella. They do invaluable work. Hackney Foodbank is part of their family of food bank charities. Its website is www.hackney.foodbank.org.uk. It operates from six locations – each one open for a different day of the week except Sunday. They reckon that on average they serve 200 single people and 60 families a week. Numbers have gone up by 40% since 2022.
I visited their warehouse where all the donated food is collected and packaged for distribution to the individual food banks.
Hackney Foodbank works on the basis of referrals. They have 150 bodies on their referral list including doctors, the Salvation Army, the council, the Citizen Advice Bureau, Age UK, and addiction-related and other charitable concerns.
The idea is that the food bank works with the referrers to help the referred individuals and families to get back on their feet. They are not just given food parcels and sent on their way – they are given real support.
Normally HF’s food banks are open between 11 am and 1 pm. But a lot of the people who need to rely on food banks are actually in work – nurses, teachers, even policeman, and can’t get to a food bank in working hours. So, HF have opened a food bank between 6 pm and 8 pm one day a week, to help those working people.
They never turn anyone away without food. They may not be able to give out an entire three-day supply, but certainly something for anyone in need.
Tanya, who is in charge of much of the operation, is a big fan of tins of corned beef. As she explained to me, they are remarkably useful and adaptable. Corned beef is high in protein. Anyone who has cooking facilities can eat it hot. And it can be broken up and used as an ingredient in a hot meal. For someone without cooking facilities, it can be eaten cold. It comes with its own opener. Some tins are halal.
There used to be a 12 week rule, which is still operated at Bow Foodbank, as explained above, but HF have stopped operating on that basis. As Pat, who in in overall charge of HF, explained to me: food banks can no longer be seen as a temporary or emergency measure, they have become an ongoing need in the community.
They are dealing with people in widely differing personal circumstances. There are people who need help short-term until they can get themselves on universal credit. Some people have buried their heads in the sand, or they may be vulnerable, and they have done nothing to deal with their situation until they discover they are in a crisis; and they often take longer to help to get sorted out. And finally, there are people with long-term problems – old people, for example, who are much harder to sort out and who may be with the food bank much longer. The only condition anyone has to meet in order to get HF’s help is that they must be working with a referral agency to try to resolve their situation.
Tanya told me the story of a man who’d been sanctioned by the Job Centre for not turning up for an interview – he’d actually gone for a job interview, but that didn’t cut any ice – and he was taken off benefits for three months as punishment, and only had 12p in his pocket. He was very grateful for food, but he explained that he was having to take giveaway newspapers from tube stations to act as toilet paper. Now, Tanya says, they add toilet paper to the food parcels.
Andrew, who coordinates all the logistics, added that they soon discovered that, once they broke up a large pack of toilet rolls, the individual rolls became tatty, so now they wrap up each one in brown paper. (The details matter to these kind people.)
Around Christmas time, lots of people donate toys for children, but they are nearly always for young children. People generally don’t think about the children from 11 upwards. But often, they’re the ones carrying a lot of the burden of a struggling family – looking after younger children while their parents are at work or looking for work. So they started giving vouchers to those older children, so they could buy themselves something for Christmas, and not be left disappointed while their younger brothers and sisters had presents to open. But the problem was they often ended up ‘lending’ their voucher to their parents who then spent it in the supermarket – for the family, of course, but it still meant that the older children didn’t have a Christmas present. So HF now give £30 Christmas vouchers to 11+ children, which can be used in “One For All” stores. These are outlets which don’t sell food and supplies, but they sell toys. They include some cinemas.
HF have an arrangement called ‘phone to food’, which is a way for them to deal with people and families who need halal or kosher food, as well as vegan or gluten-free food. They are given a voucher which they can take to a specialist retailer who will provide for their particular needs.
As well as food, people are allowed to select three toiletries or household items. HF are also able to provide nappies and baby food, even dog and cat food.
Tanya told me with some pride that when anyone arrives, the first thing they say to them is ‘Take a moment, sit down, have a cup of tea’. She says, ‘People need to feel seen.’ A few weeks ago, someone said to Tanya, ‘I can’t remember the last time I laughed like this,’ and then she began to cry. People come for help, they leave with food, but they also leave knowing that there are people who care and who treat them with dignity.