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Report: why London’s busiest food bank is getting busier

Daphine Aikens (right), and some H&F Food Bank volunteers

When you step off the tube in Shepherd’s Bush and walk towards the food bank at St Simon’s Church, an estate agent’s window is full of townhouses that start at £500,000. Directly opposite is the imposing Woodford Court estate, built in the 1970s to provide social housing.

It’s London in a nutshell – a city of haves and have-nots.

Since austerity hit, the amount of people in the UK suffering from food poverty has risen sharply.  The Trussell Trust, which supports the majority of food banks in the UK, says that in the year to March 2018, 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies were delivered across the UK, up 13% on last year.

The food bank at St Simon’s is one of three centres that Hammersmith and Fulham Food Bank provide across the borough to those who are struggling to provide regular meals for themselves or their family.

Daphine Aikens opened the first branch in 2010 in Fulham, and they are now open six days a week across their three centres. She says, without pride, that they are the busiest food bank in London.

‘That’s because of need,’ she adds.

Clients are given a voucher by an approved voucher holder which includes GP’s, social services, health visitor, schools and job centres. They bring their voucher to the food bank where they will be given enough food to cook up to 10 balanced meals for themselves and family.

It’s not just food that they provide, either. They try to offer a holistic service that attempts to do more than providing calories.

Toiletries and baby items are available as well as well as cooking and budgeting courses, and with the long school summer holidays approaching, they’ll provide holiday clubs for children who are missing out on school dinners.

‘Our challenge is to try and find solutions to the situations that cause them to be in the food bank,’ says Daphine.

More people coming through their doors means more food, which is an increasing challenge. In 2017 they gave away gave away 85 tonnes of food, based on 10,000 clients. This year they are predicting that to grow to 12,500.

‘How can we get people back into a situation where they don’t need a food bank? There’s no simple answer. It’s very complex.’

Grenfell Tower is around a mile away from St Simon’s Church, and the disaster highlighted the issue of housing inequality in London.

H&F Food Bank has helped some of the Grenfell residents with food parcels, and Daphine says they continue to see clients whose problems related to housing have meant they cannot feed themselves.

‘There are housing caps and benefit caps as well as rising food prices. People in London can’t afford to pay their rent. Even if they are getting housing benefit it doesn’t cover all their costs,’ she says.

‘Other people may be just about managing to pay their bills or rent, Some people come in and it’s a one-off crisis, something’s gone wrong, they’re living on a low income and something breaks down, or somebody dies – and they need to come to food bank and then they’re back on the straight and narrow and off they go again.’

Hand to mouth

Cllr Sue Fennimore, Daphine Aikens, Cllr Stephen Cowan

Cllr Sue Fennimore is the deputy leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council. She says the council has worked closely with Daphine to support the food bank as it copes with a growing demand.

‘I talked to Daphine about what it was she needed,’ says Cllr Fennimore.

‘I won’t be happy until foodbanks are no longer needed by our residents. It’s a utopian view, but we started out with that and worked out how we’re going to work towards it.’

They found a vacant shop that the council owned which has become The Hub, providing much-needed storage space. They also have financed citizens advice workers to go in and work alongside clients to support their other needs.

Increasingly these other needs have been exacerbated by the rollout of Universal Credit. From speaking to the council, volunteers and citizens advice workers at the food bank, these two words came back loud and clear.

Its bungled rollout has left people without any benefit payments for up to six weeks or more which has obviously exacerbated the need for emergency food parcels. They estimate there’s been a 100% increase in clients to the three food banks in Hammersmith & Fulham. Cllr Fennimore says the rollout has been a ‘disaster and disgrace’.

End Hunger UK, a coalition of 73 poverty charities and religious groups have said errors and administrative mistakes related to Universal Credit has been driving up the use of food banks. They’d like to see the time claimants must wait for their first payment reduced to two weeks.

‘It is simply wrong that so many families are forced to use food banks and are getting into serious debt because of the ongoing failings in the benefits system,’ said the Rev Paul Butler, bishop of Durham.

Not only does the food bank have to tackle all the problems that have come with Universal Credit, there is overcoming the stigma of visiting a food bank and there common misconceptions that surround them.

‘We hear that people are scroungers, that they have smartphones and 4 x 4’s parked outside and a fancy TV at home,’ says Daphine.

‘I’m sure there are people out there not eating nearly enough calories who should be coming to a food bank but are too embarrassed or ashamed to do so.

‘By the time someone comes to us they’ve waited weeks to come, or they’ve never had a voucher and refused to ask for one. If they came earlier on we might be able to help them more quickly.’

Safety net

Daphine says the majority of their clients have been failed somewhere along the way in their lives.

I speak to a young woman from North Africa who relies on the food bank to survive. She was living in London and married an EU national, but after falling pregnant, he disappeared.

She was then involved in a serious car accident at work which left her unable to continue in her job.

She currently lives in a bedsit with her young child but hasn’t been able to pay the rent in over a year. It’s an unfortunate string of events that has led her to the food bank, and belies how close any of us are to being in food poverty.

‘We feel privileged because people come at their worst moments and they talk to us and trust us’ adds Daphine.

In 2018 and beyond H&F Food Bank are looking at new ways to offer support so people are happier to walk through their doors. They are planning to launch a mental health project, open a new hub in Fulham, a parenting project and a Babybank, which will specialise in items for struggling parents.

As Cllr Fennimore explains: ‘There is something very primeval and guttural that crosses all political boundaries, about seeing people who can’t feed their family.’

It’s hard to disagree.

The food bank isn’t going anywhere, and the Dickensian reality of many living in one of the richest cities in the world will continue.

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