A visit to Hackney foodbank

Conservative councillor Chris Steward shocked the York Press in January when he said that foodbanks allow people who can’t budget to get away with their bad habits. His words, memorable as they may be, are far removed from the reality of the foodbank organisation and the clients who are forced to use them. One foodbanker gives her tale of visiting Hackney foodbank.

Conservative councillor Chris Steward shocked the York Press in January when he said that foodbanks allow people who can’t budget to get away with their bad habits. He said: “There is certainly no need for foodbanks; no-one in the UK is starving and I think foodbanks insult the one billion in the world that go to bed hungry every day.”

Steward’s comments reverberated around the Trussell Trust, shocking volunteers to the core and causing mass frustration with politicians. His words, memorable as they may be, are far removed from the reality of the foodbank organisation and the clients who are forced to use them. As I found out in a harrowing visit to St Matthias Church, Hackney.

In a freezing Church Hall, volunteers dish up food parcels for the poor. Amongst the piles of chairs are three tables covered in cloth with a simple tray of biscuits.

One lady, with her jacket tied up to her chin sits rocking in a chair, trying to hold back her tears. Once a successful business woman, Anne Smith is now forced to use the foodbank to feed herself and her son. Anne lost her job a few months ago and finding the bills and debt rising, had no idea where her next meal would come from. She tells me she never wanted to be a burden and has always wanted to work. But, life became too much of a struggle and her countless interview search had been fruitless.

“The food bank is a lifesaver,” she smiles, as a volunteer hands her a box of Frosties. Anne is one of the 600, diverse clients to visit Hackney foodbank since its opening in September.

The charity, reliant on donations from the local community, runs out of two second-hand storage units in the back of a Church yard. The units, donated from the school next door, are neatly arranged with tins of beans, cereal and boxes of mince pies. But, it is a struggle for the volunteers. To get to the storage, you have to walk gingerly along wooden planks across the mud and they have to think creatively about how to pass on the food.

Double-bagging is the key,” says Liza Cucco, the head of the foodbank, who puts in an extra kit kat for one of her clients. “We try to give each of our clients the choice,” she explains, as she weighs the bag, “Some of our clients only have a kettle, so we take care to make sure they have the right food for their needs.”

To this date, there are 300 foodbanks operating around the UK. Each foodbank has its own personality, and Hackney tries to offer a personal touch. Back in the hall, Liza puts on Premier Radio on her iPhone. As Gospel music pours out of the speakers, one man taps his foot on the floor grinning. Joe Stevens comes to the foodbank once a week to chat with friends and livens up the atmosphere with his stories.

Opposite him sits a young family with a small baby, and a middle-aged man, Michael Thomas, who tells me that now he has a criminal record, finding a job has become impossible.

The job of a foodbank volunteer is like being a counsellor, nutritionist and priest all in the same breath. Each client has to fill in a form with their dietary restrictions and Liza also has to field calls from the government agencies that supply the vouchers. “It has taken over my life,” she says.  Along with the 25 other regular volunteers, she has to look after the daily running of the foodbank and make sure the food store is stocked up.

The weirdest thing that has ever been donated? Well, that has to be the haggis, she jokes, “Which we don’t really know what to do with, actually. People do donate really strange things sometimes.

“Last Christmas, somebody donated a Fortnum and Masons Christmas pudding, with the brandy sauce, I was really happy to see it.”

Visiting a foodbank is like nothing else. Shivering, I listen to countless tales of bad luck and of people living in the shadows, forced into unthinkable living situations. The foodbank, in a fragile state does what it can to prevent this. But it is only a sticking plaster and the problem, Cucco admits, is getting worse.

Some names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees. These anecdotes are only part of a wide range of stories at Hackney foodbank – all harrowing.

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