|Valentine's Day at the Wandsworth Foodbank|
Volunteers call for more action as use of emergency food supplies increases
February 26, 2020
It’s Valentine’s Day and a young woman with a small black trolley bag is hovering outside the entrance to St Mark’s Church, moments away from the busy crowds at Clapham Junction.
She doesn’t look sure if she wants to go in. Even though it is raining outside. She tentatively pushes open the door and walks into the foyer, but stops at the bottom of the stairs, unsure what she should do next.
As she begins to turn away, she is greeted by Sarah who comes rushing down the stairs to welcome her. Sarah Chapman is one of the founders of Wandsworth Foodbank.
And this woman is here to collect some emergency food supplies to help her survive the week.
“Six months ago I was donating to the foodbank”
This woman is not unusual. Sarah explains that people often find it difficult to come to the foodbank and stand outside four or five times before deciding to go in.
“They often say ‘I can’t believe I’m in this position. I never thought I would be in the position. Six months ago I was donating to the foodbank,'” says Sarah.
“By the time they come they have exhausted all other options, they have often experienced trauma or great difficulty,” she adds.
“But people are still nervous and feel bad about it.”
Guests at the foodbank are treated with dignity and respect in a totally non-judgemental place where they can sit with a cup of tea and slice of cake, and have a chat with volunteers before picking up their food parcel.
It’s all about making them feel as comfortable as possible, and volunteers try their best to provide food that guests would buy in their normal shop.
Foodbank manager Dan Frith continually updates to website with items they need.
“We always have plenty of baked beans, but need more tinned fruit and veg,” he says.
He also wants to encourage people to donate during quieter periods in the spring and summer and consider financial donations to ensure the foodbank can cater for everyone who needs to use it.
When I visit there are a few small children running about, playing hide and seek with the volunteers, their parents glad for a brief bit of respite and chance to discuss their situation with a helpful ear.
Many of us think we would never need to use a foodbank, but as Sarah explains, most of us are just two or three pay cheques away from fearing where our food will come from.
For those who are not lucky enough to have family and friends who can afford to help out, food poverty is a very real threat.
When she started the foodbank in May 2013, Sarah says she was reluctant to sign a commitment for three years.
“I remember thinking I can’t imagine in three years they would still be needed here. But seven years later and the need is growing. It doesn’t need to be like this.
“It’s just not right anybody should have to use a foodbank, but people are in need struggling with poverty and hunger. I wish we didn’t need to exist.”
Sarah tells me that the number of people using food banks is still going up.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” she laments.
Between April 2018 and March 2019 Wandsworth Foodbank, which is run by local churches, provided 5,770 three-day emergency food supplies.
This was an 11 per cent increase on the previous year, and a 78 per cent increase from when the foodbank opened in 2013. Of these more than one third of emergency food supplies were for children.
In October last year Wandsworth Council voted not to measure the extent of food poverty in the borough. Instead it committed to continue to “work to support and promote Healthy Start Vouchers.”
Conservative councillor Lucy Mowatt said the council would not use “a sticking plaster” and will address the underlying issues with the likes of the Wandsworth Grant Fund to support targeted local projects.
But the team at Wandsworth Food Bank saw this as a missed opportunity and called for more concrete proactive action to solve the problem.
They have previously pushed the council to spend all of its £200,000 budget allocated from its Discretionary Social Fund, which can help residents in crisis to find essential items, replace white goods, or receive Sainsbury’s vouchers and discretionary housing payments, rather than having to rely on the food bank.
Last year research conducted by Wandsworth Food Bank showed the council made nearly 700 food bank referrals during the year, accounting for a quarter of all referrals. A further 13 per cent came from statutory services such as GPs, mental health services, health visitors and hospitals, showing that the food bank is now seen as an integral part of the social safety net.
Research conducted by Wandsworth Foodbank showed the top three reasons why people were referred to them were low incomes not covering essential costs, benefit delays and benefit changes.
Sarah says Universal Credit was the most-commonly cited benefits issue, and wants to see the removal of the five week wait, and more responsible government lending for advance payments.
She also wants to see a push for ‘living hours’ as part of the living wage to tackle in-work poverty, after having seen people on zero-hours contracts lose out on work for a couple of weeks and fall into food poverty.
“When things are going wrong, to help stay afloat and help children have enough food, parents often skip meals,” she said.
“After paying rents and council tax, food is the bit that gets cut as people don’t want to become homeless.”
Sian Bayley - Local Democracy Reporter