It is just past one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and a mother and her two children hover near the doorway of Brixton foodbank. The mother looks apologetic and is reluctant to step any further inside. It is an hour before closing time, and volunteers have been giving out food parcels since eleven this morning.
A female volunteer spots the family standing in the doorway. She gives them a warm smile and welcomes them inside.
The family have come for an emergency food parcel, and are among the 13 million people in the UK now living below the breadline. They will present a voucher to volunteers at Brixton foodbank who will issue them with enough food to cook at home for three days. The mother and her two children are among the 250 000 people estimated to have been fed by foodbanks in 2012.
There has been an explosion of foodbanks across Britain. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest network of foodbanks, says it is opening two new foodbanks every week. The organisation has opened 300 foodbanks in the last two years but believe up
to 1000 are needed to satisfy a growing need.
“There’s definitely been more people visiting”, says Peter Williams, one of the volunteers at Brixton foodbank. “I don’t know the exact figures, but only a few months ago a busy day would see 10 vouchers being handed in, now it’s more like 30. That may not sound like a lot, but 30 vouchers caters for around 100 people. I think the reason for that is two-fold: cuts to benefits inevitably lead to a greater need, but I think there’s also just more of an awareness of foodbanks.”
Foodbanks are not soup kitchens. Hungry people cannot simply turn up and hope to be given supplies. Everyone who visits has to arrive with a food voucher and deemed to be in an acute situation. They will have been formally referred and been issued a voucher by care professionals such as doctors, social workers, the police and school liaison officers. The Trussell Trust is cautious not to simply become an easy hand-out and no one can be given a food parcel more than three times.
In the storeroom of St Paul’s Church community centre, three women wearing the green bibs of Trussell Trust volunteers are dividing out bags of food. One is sitting at a desk sorting through the food vouchers and noting any dietary requirements, the other two are moving across the shelves picking out a balanced range of food that will be nutritionally sensible for a family for the three days.
There is a broad mix of food, from bags of rice and tins of spaghetti hoops to hot chocolate powder and cartons of apple juice. Other everyday essentials sit on another side of the shelf – away from the food are boxes of tampons, deodorants, tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes and toilet roll.
What stands out most among the items on the shelves are the tins of baked beans. It is clearly the most popular donation. “Yeah we get a lot of baked beans”, Peter says smiling.
At the Trussell Trust headquarters in Salisbury, there is a joke that they a ‘lake of baked beans’ in their food depot. Salisbury food bank manager Louise Wratten told the FoodBankers: “We have a lot of baked beans, a lot. And that’s really great people are donating them, they’re nutritious, they’re easy to eat, everyone loves baked beans. But it’s the other items such as the veg and tinned meat, those are the items we find ourselves running short of. They’re items that people don’t necessarily buy for themselves but we need to make sure we have so the food box we give out is nutritionally balanced.”
Back at Brixton foodbank Peter explains that the volunteers will usually sit with visitors over a cup of tea or coffee and chat with them, making sure they feel welcome. Despite foodbanks being a place of great need, Brixton seems a bright and friendly place.
During the week, Peter, 31, works as a chartered accountant. Yet every Saturday, he dons the green bib of a Trussell Trust volunteer, travels from his house in Streatham to St Paul’s Church in Brixton, and helps hand out food to some of London’s poorest people. Like many other volunteers at this Brixton foodbank, Peter is a Christian and heard about the centre through his local church.
The Trussell Trust does not hide the fact it is a Christian charity and says that as an organisation it is motivated by Jesus’ teaching on poverty and injustice. There is no sign of anyone trying to preach or convert those who visit food banks, but they are almost all situated in the community centres or lobbies of churches.
There is no doubt that there is a profound need for food from those visiting foodbanks. Brixton has the highest levels of deprivation in the Lambeth borough, with one in three children estimated to be living in poverty and eligible for free school meals. The foodbank opened after West Norwood foodbank discovered that more and more people travelled from Brixton to receive food from them.
Back in the church centre, the mother and her two children are leaving. “Sometimes people come three times in a row, one week after another.” Peter says. “Others may not come back for months. It’s nice to get to know people and see familiar faces here, but obviously it’s good if they don’t have to visit again.”