Peckham foodbank has seen visitor numbers rise rapidly in the past year. But with donations not matching demand, there’s a constant worry about food supplies. We talk to Peckham foodbank’s co-ordinator Felicia Boshorin about the struggle to keep the shelves filled
It’s the puddings they’re always running out of at Peckham foodbank.
Alongside the tea, rice, tinned vegetables and tinned meat that are included in the food parcels given out each week to some of London’s poorest residents, is a tin of rice pudding and a tin of fruit. Everyone, says Felicia Boshorin, co-ordinator of Peckham foodbank, deserves a pudding.
But it’s an item that’s often ignored by the residents of Peckham when given a list of extra foods they could buy to help their local foodbank.
Baked beans and pasta, on the other hand, are always favourites.
“We’ve got baked beans to last us until the end of the century!” Felicia says, laughing. “It’s this mindset, people think: “Oh baked beans are filling and nutritious, let’s give them that!’ Even when we’ve got a list with foods we really need, we’re outside a shop and we give them a list and they say: “Ahh I’ll get more pasta because that will do them good!’”
But Felicia is grateful for every tin shoppers can spare, even if it is more baked beans. Supermarket shoppers donating food is how foodbanks like this one in Peckham survive. But as the queues outside the centre on Peckham High Street grow longer with every week, it’s becoming harder for the level of donations to keep up with the demand.
“We have never run out of food but we’ve got very worried that food stocks get low from time to time and the last month has worried me.” Felicia says. “Three months ago, the level of food was really high and you think: ‘We’ve collected half a ton of food, we’ve filled up nicely!’ And then in just one session all of it is gone. And you think: ‘Oh dear, what am I going to do? Are we going to have to say no one day?’”
It’s a question that Felicia, who has been helping to run Peckham foodbank since it opened in December 2009, thinks about all the time. Since April she has spent £700 of her own money on food to make sure no one has had to go away hungry. That’s the first time in nearly two years Peckham foodbank, part of the Trussell Trust’s network of 345 foodbanks across Britain, has had to rely on personal money to make sure the shelves stay filled.
Demand has become overwhelming. When Peckham foodbank first opened Felicia and other volunteers had time to have a chat and a cup of tea with those visiting. The average number of visitors was three to five people on a Tuesday, seven to eight on a Thursday. Now there will be 25 people on a Tuesday, 35 on a Thursday. 35 food vouchers may not sound like a lot, but it will usually mean enough food for a whole family – husband, wife, kids – and so roughly caters for 90 people, every week.
Peckham foodbank opens from 2pm every Tuesday and Thursday, but many people are now arriving at 9am in the hope they can get their food before there’s any chance of it running out. By 1pm, the small reception room will be completely full with people waiting for food parcels. From 2 to 5pm, Felicia and her team of volunteers will work non-stop. The original one interview room – used to go through a visitor’s details and dietary requirements – has turned to two. The one small store room for food has now turned into the whole ground floor of the building. Big Yellow, the self-storage company, has even given Peckham foodbank another store room of their own for free. Two satellites centres have been set up in Kennington and Kingswood, with a third planned for Bermondsey, meaning on any day of the week there will be a food bank operating in the area. Yet the demand shows no sign of stopping.
“The numbers have definitely increased,” Felicia says. “After every session, it’s like a nightmare, you think: ‘Where am I going to fill that again?’ I think the rise has come because the need is there. It’s sad because it’s a first world country and people don’t expect food to be an issue but I think because of the changes we’ve been seeing in the last few years, the need is there.”
A change to benefits is the biggest reason for people suddenly needing to rely on food banks. Often people have switched from Employment and Support Allowance to Jobseeker’s allowance, and will have up to four weeks when one set of benefits has stopped and money from the new allowance has yet to come through. They are unlikely to have any savings to get them through that period.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to ask why friends or family can’t help when a situation becomes so bad that people can’t afford to feed themselves, but, as Felicia explains, it’s not as simple as that.
“Most people who come have been on benefits for over two years. You’ve got no savings, and you’ve lost all the goodwill from people around you because you’re going to be sure that in two years you’ve had to ask for favours. If you’ve been unemployed for a while, you’ve used all the goodwill from others. There is a limit that people can keep helping you.”
Felicia is insistent that foodbanks should be seen as a crisis centre and not a permanent part of the welfare state. She says that food banks were set up to help those who were poorest in the community, not to serve as an extra arm of the government. Yet the worry never leaves her that one day there won’t be enough food at the foodbank and people will have nowhere else to turn.
“With the system tightened up so much, we’re having people fall on us so much. I’m thinking about it all the time because the fear is when you start to see people needing foodbanks. The fear is when you come to a time when there’s no food. We’re trying to put something together with other services on agreeing on how we can move people on from here. Because that’s what they need: advice. The food is one thing, but people are really disillusioned, there’s so many changes happening and they don’t know where they’re going.”