I’ve been volunteering for the Wandsworth Food Bank for almost five years, a food bank owned by the Trussell Trust. Before Covid, I would help twice a week. When the crisis hit I was asked to be much more dedicated to helping, from twice a week to full time. I’m in a really lucky position that I could do this.
Before Covid, Wandsworth Food Bank was open every day of the week. The guests brought their vouchers to the food counter, one of us sat down with them, gave them a cup of tea, talked and took care of getting them food. The main thing wasn’t the food, it was figuring out why they were in a crisis and trying to get them out. They would go away with some food and hopefully some hope after being heard. Now this process has to take place over the phone.
There was a big problem with a lot of children who usually had free school meals. Their schools closed and their parents tried to work from home and take care of the children and they had to give them lunch, which they usually didn’t. It created chaos. I would call them and work out allergies and how to deliver [lunch]and give them advice on how to get out of their crisis.
The team was great. We have four employees and a lot of volunteers. So many people have offered to volunteer that there is now a waiting list.
Many people are having mental health issues right now. They need food, but they also need spiritual help. We try to direct them to places like Talk Wandsworth or Shout which is a line of text and I have a number of volunteers calling people who just want a chat because they are unhappy.
I’ve spoken to some people whose relative has died and who couldn’t go to the funeral. Many of our guests have little support from friends and family and many are sick or protective. Their already limited support is severely limited so they struggle with their sanity.
There is an analogy that the world is in a terrible storm right now, but we are not in the same boat. Some people have a nice boat, some have an unstable raft, others are in the water. There are very different ways the storm hits you. We want everyone to have at least one life raft to keep them afloat. We all go through the same thing, but it affects people very differently – if you are already struggling to get essentials when the storm hits, you will really struggle to survive.
We have a mother with three young children in an apartment. It’s hard to go out right now and you can really only go to your local store where the price of pasta has gone from 50p to £ 1.80 and things like toilet paper and diapers have gotten more expensive. Suddenly, what you used to be able to handle is no longer enough. Lots of people in London don’t have a safety net.
It’s amazing the food counter is there, but I wish we weren’t necessary. People ask if it’s a successful charity, but it would be a success for us if we didn’t exist.
In London there was the problem of not getting out, especially at the beginning. You’re stuck in an apartment, the kids are there, it’s hot, one of them is sick. Over 50 percent of the people referred to us were referred for their income level – they simply don’t have enough income to cover the essentials: food, electricity, rent. London is so expensive.
I’ve had people whose electricity was cut because they couldn’t pay but needed it for medical reasonswhat’s so sad. I’ve seen people beg for food because they only have six slices of bread left.
Some people really don’t have enough to eat. Some of these people still have jobs, but a lot of people have lost that and are ashamed. We must assure them that there is no guilt or shame. It could be you tomorrow.
I think it will get worse. Lots of people have gone on vacation, or lost their jobs, or their kids haven’t finished school, so it’s really difficult. Many people also have long-term health problems that prevent them from going out and finding a job. Some people don’t have internet access. If you’ve lost your job or your income has dropped it is not easy to find a job right now. For many people, income may be the same, but food costs have increased and they are paying to have their children eat lunch every day. There is a coupon scheme, but not everyone has accessed it.
We have some guests who are homeless. If you are homeless right now, socially distancing yourself isn’t easy when you have nowhere to live. We assume it will get worse for a while.
The community support has been amazing. The people have been generous. The best way for people to give is online and then we can get the right food that we need at the right time. As you can imagine, at one point there was no toilet roll or long-life milk, and the fellowship was so generous. Usually we give enough food for a three day emergency and could change that to seven days.
The number of people using our food bank has more than doubled. We believe this is solely related to the pandemic and all of its aftermath. We have given parcels to 2,720 people since the pandemic. Ordinarily that would have been 1,200 or so. That’s because of the congregation and the churches that run out of most food banks.
The churches are full of food right now. There are stacks and stacks of food, like a warehouse. We’re getting pallet loads of groceries now because people gave money to the grocery bank. We even had firefighters transporting food for us because the quantities are so large. It’s amazing how people pull together.
At a time when most incomes are falling, the amount of food and money we received increased. It could have gone the other way so easily. It’s amazing to see people looking out for other people they haven’t even met before.
I love London, there is a really great community. This has shown people’s desire to help – volunteering when a lot of people don’t want to go out. They expose themselves more and it’s risky, but they do it because they want to help other people.
I made about a thousand calls over two months. In an average week, we deliver up to 120 to 130 parcels to people, making around 20 to 25 calls a day and sending more emails. The phone calls can only take three minutes if they don’t need any assistance from us and are just waiting for their universal credit to come in. In other cases, people really need to talk and it’s 25 minutes or more. It is a real privilege to make them available to me.
Hopefully we can meet people face to face again. You’re missing some non-verbal cues on the phone. I’m more used to it now and probably ask better questions than I was a few weeks ago. I would prefer to be face to face, but it’s the best we can do right now.
Read more from this series:
View from the front: the firefighter delivers PPE.
View from the front: the Covid nurse.