Since 2012, I’ve been volunteering at Epsom and Ewell Foodbank, where, in recent years, we’ve been handing out what should be an unacceptable number of emergency food parcels. After all, if we can’t stop food poverty here in affluent, suburban Surrey, where can we?
The coronavirus pandemic has only driven us the wrong way – we’ve seen an increase in need of 265% this year over 2019. This pandemic has dragged a wider section of society into poverty for the first time – here in Surrey, we’ve even had company directors coming to us with nowhere else to turn.
Before coronavirus, we’d sit with people and have a cup of a tea and a chat, giving us the chance to link someone up with other local support that could help with why they don’t have enough money for food. To minimise the risks of spreading the virus, we’ve been forced to to convert to a delivery service. This means we’re really missing out on our normal one-to-one relationships with people who come to us.
Not being able to have these conversations is making it harder for us to help people be less likely to use a food bank in the future. The earlier we can engage with people often the quicker we can help, whether it’s signposting to other agencies for guidance or to offer support services we provide. Our aim, after all, is to help people to the point they don’t need us again.
“Our food stock has doubled from donations and we have given out an astonishing 125 tons of food.”
All this hardship, however, has only made us even more determined in that mission. That is why we support the Trussell Trust in its campaign to create a Hunger Free Future and why we continue to support initiatives that we know will help end the need for food banks like ours.
Luckily, we’ve witnessed incredible generosity in our community. Our food stock has doubled from donations and we have given out an astonishing 125 tons of food. Back in April at the beginning of this pandemic, we hit a shortage and even had to buy some – but we had an amazing response on social media. We have incredible supporters and still continue to receive around 15 offers to volunteer every single week.
We’re here to help people – but we want for the need to not be there. That is why we focus on sign-posting people to other services, providing a counselling service, and offering support and encouragement. We have set up an online Zoom process, helping for example with doctor’s appointments, and have seen some good outcomes. Extras that help are having a furniture service and an IT scheme that serves the community. In September we started collecting laptops and distributing them to schools to support children with no access to the internet. We have so far recovered 50 laptops and helped two schools. It’s great to be able to help people with these, but of course it shouldn’t be our role. In a just country, all children would have access to such a basic resource.
“We can’t leave whether someone has enough money for the basics to chance.”
The most crucial part of our mission is to ensure people understand the reality of living in poverty, understand the practicalities. Society needs to hear from people affected, or else it’s just the rest of the world living in ivory towers and nothing changes. That’s why we started the East Surrey Poverty Truth Commission, which is about getting together to understand how policy decisions have affected people’s lives. People who have used the food bank and experienced poverty come together with civic figures – bishops, local big and small business owners, councils, police and health representatives – open monthly discussions.
We’re trying to peel back the layers of what’s going on and show the reality. People just don’t realise how expensive it is to be poor – pay as you go phones and electricity meters, for example, cost much more than those of us living on contracts, while one woman was forced to access our services because a bus fare increase took another chunk out of her weekly budget.
When you listen to as many people’s experiences as we do, it becomes clear it’s complicated why people end up in debt, and sometimes the only reason they’re in need is because of who answered the phone and the support offered or not.
This isn’t right. We can’t leave whether someone has enough money for the basics to chance. That’s why we must come together to push for change, to push for that future where no one needs a food bank.
Jonathan Lees is founder of Epsom and Ewell Foodbank
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