The concept of foodbanks is straightforward. People donate food which is then distributed to those who can’t afford to feed themselves. A classic example of Christian charity. A simple, practical transaction. The reality is, of course, more complicated as I found out on a visit to Waterloo foodbank. Instead of stacks of baked beans and noisy queues, I found three people sitting around and chatting with cups of tea; two volunteers and Andy (not his real name).
After a little while I spotted the plastic bags at Andy’s feet and surmised from the conversation that he was here to collect food, the ‘client’. In total, he was at the foodbank for around an hour, of which about 55 minutes were spent talking. The three days’ worth of supplies he took with him on the hour long walk back to a council bedsit in Peckham were of course important, but he seemed more grateful for the company.
I enjoyed his company too. A croupier by profession, Andy had worked at casinos in Zambia, Israel, Russia, Austria, Holland and Germany. Returning to England, where he calls home despite having no family and friends here, he’d fallen on hard times. He was undergoing extensive dental work and until it was complete he couldn’t show his face at a blackjack table. Articulate, calm and able to speak Swahili, German and Dutch, Andy was not the type of person I’d expected.
Andy is certainly unusual. Rhona Croker, a volunteer at the food bank, says that a large proportion of clients suffer mental health problems. But there were no other clients that day. Open two mornings a week, Waterloo food bank has served only 583 people in since its foundation in December 2011. The stock room is full at the moment. You would think that the run up to Christmas would be the busiest time. In fact, so many charities run Christmas appeals that, relatively, needy people are well looked after at this time of year.
Foodbanks are bureaucratic. Every food item is weighed, recorded and put on a specific shelf. What goes into each bag is carefully measured. To receive food, you need a voucher issued by a doctor, social worker or the police. Without one, you won’t get any food, though you will be given advice on how to get one and other support. Each voucher is logged into a computer so that it can be checked before food is given. Forging or changing vouchers has been a problem. You can only claim from a foodbank three times in total.
The inspiration behind foodbanks is explicitly Christian. The Trussell Trust, the organisation which founded and co-ordinates them, is a Christian charity. Waterloo foodbank is in a church and manned by Christian volunteers. Yet the foodbanks claim to be entirely secular and non-judgemental. They are used by many non-Christians and give to those in need regardless of their faith. Rhona says that occasionally they’ll pray with a client, but only if that person is a Christian themselves and “it seems appropriate”.
Waterloo foodbank is not political either. The focus is assisting those in need and the basic Christian covenant of helping thy neighbour, not the rights or wrongs of welfare policy. Rhona says only that “if the government can’t or won’t I suppose you have to help each other”. Still, the failures of the benefit system are closely connected. Andy was there because his unemployment benefit had been withdrawn last week, unfairly in his opinion. Despite applying for the required number of jobs he wasn’t given enough help filling in the form and, as a result, did it incorrectly. Rhona tells me of one mother who visited the centre needing food at the end of the summer. She couldn’t afford to feed her three children because there were no free school meals during the holidays.
Waterloo foodbank is Christian compassion mixed with hard-nosed bureaucracy. Whilst a key part of the client’s visit is the opportunity to have a conversation with one of the volunteers, Rhona says that in the five weeks she’s worked there she’s only seen the same person twice. The foodbank does not indiscriminately hand out to anyone who knocks on the door, but provides relief for people who have gone through the correct channels. As far as I can see, the standard client is not homeless or long term unemployed, but temporarily down on their luck. Before leaving, Andy says thank you and promises to bring some food along when he’s got a full set of teeth and is back dealing cards in the casino.