“For the past few days I haven’t been to the street begging for money to buy food for me and my baby…”
This was what a mother at Brent Foodbank told us recently. She was on the streets begging with her two year old baby when she was referred to our foodbank for help.
This mum is a well-educated, professional person. She’s currently finishing a degree in management and her husband is doing his best to earn enough to feed the family, but sometimes he just doesn’t earn enough. She never thought she’d need to resort to such extreme measures as begging. I have been at Brent foodbank for five years, and this is the first time I have heard of someone so desperate to feed their child that they felt the only option left open to them was to beg.
But this is not the first time people have told me about the difficult decisions they have made before they were referred to the foodbank, and as Christmas draws nearer, hunger seems at its starkest. One client recently confessed, ‘I thought of shoplifting to feed the children and even went into the supermarket but couldn’t bring myself to take anything in case I got caught’.
Christmas is always the busiest time for foodbanks. The Trussell Trust, which runs a network of 425 foodbanks like ours, says that this year could be the busiest Christmas yet. Last December Trussell Trust foodbanks helped over 130,000 with three days food supplies.
The reasons for referral to the foodbank vary; benefit problems and low income are the two major causes, but even a seemingly small crisis like the boiler bursting can be enough to force you to choose between getting it fixed and buying food when you’re struggling on a financial knife edge. Cold weather means that winter is the toughest time of year for many people living on the breadline, as meagre incomes are stretched further to try and heat the home. And with Christmas adverts everywhere, it can be even harder to be facing hunger and poverty, especially when you have children.
Many of the people accessing the service, especially those attending for the first time, tell me that they feel ashamed and that they never thought they would find themselves in the situation where they would need to visit a foodbank. As soon as people walk through the door here we welcome them with a cup of tea and a listening ear; this really helps to put people at ease, but we should never underestimate how hard it can be to summon the courage to walk through that door in the first place. The foodbank currently provides a service that goes way beyond just handing out food, and at this time of year our team of dedicated volunteers works especially hard to bring some joy to people facing a difficult Christmas.
For the past three years we’ve been hosting an afternoon of festive fun at our community lunch on Christmas Eve for anyone in the community wanting to attend. The lunch is not restricted to foodbank clients and every person that attends is given a present to open on Christmas Morning. During the event we also hand out Christmas Hampers of festive food like mince pies, dried fruit and nuts, and tinned ham for people to take away to ensure that they’ll have a Christmas meal and enough food for the holidays. We also have Winter Kits on hand at the foodbank in case someone comes to us who living on the streets, and we give winter coats to those in the community who may be in need of one.
Brent Foodbank have been faced with huge amounts of pressure since it started the service in 2010. We’ve had to change location several times largely because we outgrew the spaces we were given. This is because we’ve seen increasing in numbers of people being referred to us for emergency help. Yet despite difficulties faced along the way, we’ve had very strong support from the local community; this has enabled us to continue playing the pivotal role of tackling hunger in our area. We were fortunate to be given a dilapidated building by the local council recently, and now we have renovated it and moved in we’re planning to fully adopt The Trussell Trust’s ‘More Than Food’ model, providing a wide range of additional services that aim to address the root cause of the problems faced by foodbank clients. This includes services like legal advice, money and debt advice and training on how to cook and eat well on a budget. We’re really pleased that the public, churches, grant funders like Big Lottery and business leaders like Martin Lewis are helping foodbanks like ours to make this possible.
The vision of The Trussell Trust is to “end hunger and poverty in the UK”. This means stopping people going hungry today, by providing emergency food and practical help to tackle the underlying cause of their problems; and then pushing for broader societal and political changes to stop people going hungry tomorrow.
At Brent this December, as at foodbanks up and down the country, we’ll be working to make sure families who are struggling to make ends meet won’t be going hungry this Christmas.
Michele, Lawrence, Brent Foodbank Manager
This piece was originally published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk on 8 December 2015.