New Cross foodbank is different from most foodbanks seen in the media. First of all, it’s not run by the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest network of foodbanks, but is instead managed by local community members. That means it’s not connected to a church and is not bound by the regulations of an organisation, including how many days a week it opens (every day bar Sunday) and how many food parcels they can give an individual or family (answer: until they stop needing it).
Secondly, it also doesn’t look like a foodbank. In fact, apart from the small sign saying ‘foodbank’ above the entrance, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a charity shop. That’s because it is.
“What’s so unique is we’re not a church. Although we’re a charity, we’re also a charity shop, so you could be coming in for a browse and the foodbank is hidden around the corner at the back, so when you come out nobody knows what you’ve been in for”, says Ray Woolford, who runs New Cross foodbank with fellow community activist Barbara Raymond.
Ray has been helping to manage the New Cross foodbank since it opened in September 2012 and believes it is essential that people should feel they are entering a community centre, rather than a hand-out centre. The shelves of food are hidden away from public view, past the charity shop that can be seen from the window, while there is always two paid staff members on hand – meaning a sense of trust can be built up with those visiting, which can be harder to do when there is a high turn-around of volunteers.
“When you’re building confidence with people you don’t want them to be alienated by every time they come there’s somebody different”, Ray says. He adds that anyone may have to use the foodbank and trust is therefore vital: “When people come here, it’s not the normal type. It could be your mum, your dad. Your own parents may be embarrassed to tell you they are in food poverty. It’s quite shocking the number of people who get here who don’t tell their own family what state they’re in.”
The New Cross foodbank is situated in Lewisham, a borough with one of the highest rates of child poverty in London. The foodbank buys their food from FareShare as the amount of food they have donated does not cover the number of people coming through the doors. An average of 500 families are using the foodbank every week. The team are now expanding to Greenwich after a huge demand from residents. There is also the hope that more donations will come with this expansion, as Greenwich is a more affluent area. Often Ray will buy food supplies himself to make sure the shelves filled.
“We never turn people away. We go and buy more. It’s as simple as that”, he says.
The food bank is open from 11am – 2pm six days a week, in contrast to Trussell Trust-run foodbanks which tend to open only twice a week. Those who visit are asked to fill out a form, stating their dietary requirements, how many people are in their household, where they live and where they from. They are also asked to provide proof of ID for a pound, which is what it costs to buy their food, meaning they’re helping to buy the food rather than getting it for free.
The form also asks the visitor when they have any pets, a factor often forgotten by emergency food services. A whole shelf at the foodbank is filled with dog and cat food.
“We also think it’s really important to cater for their pets because when you’re poor and you have a cat or a dog it’s very easy to forget pets. So we feed dogs, cats, rabbits”, Ray says as he shows what food they give out. It is, like most foodbanks, mainly tins of food, which can be easily stored, but they also give out fresh fruit, as well as fresh meat and fish on a Saturday. However it is vital to remember the cooking time frame for the food being given out, as many of those using foodbanks will also be having to closely monitor their gas or electricity bills.
“If people are on low budgets they haven’t got money to put in the gas and electricity, so the food that we supply has to be stuff that can easily be made cheaply, so at every level you’re having to think. Even things like jacket potatoes – lovely food, but unless you have a microwave it takes you an hour to cook.”
Expensive utility bills are a huge problem for many elderly people in the area, which explains why the majority of visitors to the foodbank are pensioners.
“Pensioners, who have worked every hour God sends, are suddenly finding their gas or utility or water bills have gone up to such a level that their pension doesn’t pay it. They hate debt so they have that mentality that they pay the bill first but then they have no money for food. I’ve got people coming who don’t use electricity at all, they live by candlelight. There’s people in this day and age who don’t have hot water and live by candlelight because they’re frightened to put on the gas and electricity because they haven’t got the money to pay it.”
It’s a bleak thought and although the coalition government’s changes to benefits have not yet had an effect on residents of the area, as most of the changes are only just being implemented, Ray says he has no doubt that poverty in the area is only going to get worse.
“It’s going to build and build and build unless you actually put the focus into putting people into work. The government’s current focus is cutting tax rather than improving people’s pay. If you pay people they get more money, they pay more tax, they need less benefit, and people wouldn’t need foodbanks.
“The average income is £20 to spend on food, that’s what they spend on food a week. A lot of these politicians are just on a different planet. It’s worse than the years of Thatcher because there’s nobody fighting up for the people at the bottom.”