Elizabeth Maytom at the Norwood Foodbank. Photo by James Hopkirk

Elizabeth Maytom opened the foodbank in South Lambeth in 2011. An active member of the congregation at St Luke’s, she’d started researching child poverty in South London earlier that year, hoping to set up a project with the church to help.

Initially she was sceptical of foodbanks. “I just didn’t believe they were really needed,” she says. But when she started digging she was shocked by the extent of the poverty she found, often in unexpectedly affluent parts of Lambeth and the surrounding boroughs. The need, she concluded, was very real.

She approached the Trussell Trust, who founded the UK Foodbank Network, and within days she’d had her first meeting with them. A few months later the operation was up and running at St Luke’s Church in West Norwood. A Brixton outpost, at St Paul’s on Ferndale Road, followed six months later.

In 2011, foodbanks were still relatively rare, and there were only a couple of others in London. Now there are 72 in London and more than 400 nationwide – and those are just the foodbanks working within the Trussell Trust framework. There are many others.

I’ve been visiting the West Norwood and Brixton sites since October 2014, seeing the work they do and talking to volunteers and clients. I’ve met people who have suffered horrifying domestic abuse, mental health issues and bereavements, recovering drug addicts, refugees and people who are simply struggling to put food on the table, despite working long hours.

Elizabeth explains how it works: “In order for someone to come they need to be referred by a voucher organisation. That could be anything from social workers, probation, schools, children’s centres, doctors, charities which work with people in need – a huge range, in fact.“

These local organisations apply to the foodbank for the right to hold vouchers, and they go through a vetting process. Once accepted, they then issue vouchers to people they deem to be in crisis. The foodbank itself doesn’t make decisions about who gets help – an important part of the Trussell Trust model.

Centre 70 – a West Norwood-based advice centre – send an advisor to the foodbank on Tuesday and Friday mornings. This means that people in urgent need can feasibly turn up, get a voucher from Centre 70 and receive a food parcel that day – although this is uncommon. It also means that existing foodbank clients can get help with housing, debt and benefits issues they may be experiencing. The idea is to make the foodbank as helpful a destination as possible for people who are struggling.

“The recommendation is to provide up to three vouchers per crisis, per six months,” Elizabeth says. “However, knowing that benefit changes and delays don’t get resolved in three weeks, we have the capacity to offer beyond three where necessary.”

A parcel contains three days’ worth of food – three meals a day for however many people the voucher applies to. “They’ll get things like cereal, tea, coffee, fruit juice, soup, baked beans, vegetables and then some meat and fish,” says Elizabeth. “We also give toiletries – toilet rolls, nappies, things like that.”

“Benefit changes and delays are a constant issue for our clients”

Demand has grown significantly since the early days. “Definitely 2013 saw a massive spike,” she says. “It was a big time for foodbanks, in part due to the changes to benefits.” [Nathan Scott at Brixton Advice centre recently explained the impact of those changes to me – see earlier post.]

In 2014 and early 2015 this new, increased level of demand continued at about the same level until April last year, when numbers started to rise again. “And January this year was just mad – completely unprecedented,” Elizabeth says.

I ask why she thinks this is happening. She says the bedroom tax, along with changes to benefits for European nationals has had an impact, from what clients tell her, and that they increasingly see people who have been moved from DLA (Disability Living Allowance) to PIP (Personal Independent Payment) but who are left with nothing while they wait to be transferred, often for several weeks or even months.  “Benefit changes and delays are a constant issue for our clients,” she says.

They’ve been helping growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, many of who have no recourse to public funds – so can’t claim benefits – but who also have no right to work, so are trapped. [Something I’ve been hearing a lot about while working with the South London Refugee Association – see earlier post.]

“We see people all the time who are working, who are doing everything they can – but it’s just not enough to make ends meet”

“We also see the working poor,” she adds. “We had a young mum with one child who was working 40 hours a week doing a cleaning job. The child was in a nursery, despite being of school age. For some reason he just didn’t get a school place in Lambeth. So in September she had to continue paying for childcare so she could continue to go to work. It got to November and she was on her knees.

“We see people all the time who are working, who are doing everything they can – but it’s just not enough to make ends meet. And it often seems to be when people are doing cleaning jobs, or have zero hours contracts.”

They’re still frequently contacted by local organisations who want to start offering vouchers. Each additional organisation means more vouchers and more demand.  “Some foodbanks can’t cope due to size or numbers beyond a certain number of voucher holders,” Elizabeth says, “but our trustees didn’t believe that we should ever put a cap on it. So we actually have a huge number of voucher holders and the list is growing all the time.”

As the need has grown, so has the scope of what foodbanks offer – More Than Food is now one of the Trussell Trust’s straplines. “We have a legal advice team [from Duncan Lewis],” Elizabeth says, “and I’d like to expand that. We have employability from Tomorrow’s People, who come once a month to help with job searches and CVs. And Mosaic Clubhouse (a Lambeth-based mental health charity) has recently started signposting for mental health issues. They’ve only been twice and already they’ve had really positive outcomes.
Mental health is a big issue among our clients.”

She also wants to introduce cookery courses. One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at foodbanks is that most of the food they offer is tinned. Elizabeth says she’s very conscious of this and is keen to offer more fresh fruit and veg – but there are issues with this beyond the costs and logistics of delivery, storage and waste.

“Last week I was given some fresh vegetables from an organic farm and three separate families gave it back because they said they didn’t know how to cook it. So I’ve just secured a grant to do Eat Well, Spend Less, which will mean cookery classes teaching the basics. A pop-up kitchen, basically, that we can take to tenants association boardrooms, meeting rooms, community centres – anywhere we need to.”

She says one of the biggest misconceptions about foodbanks is that they deal mainly with homeless people – which is simply not the case. In fact, it’s difficult for them to deal with the homeless as they rarely have access to organisations that carry vouchers. They help a wide cross-section of people. “Crisis can happen to anyone, at any time,” she says. “We had someone in the early days who had one of those huge houses in Dulwich, tennis court – the lot. He became an alcoholic due the pressures of work and lost everything. Many months later he came back and gave us food.”

Another misconception is need. “Some people think that we’re not really needed, that people aren’t really hungry, that they’re not starving. To those people I say come and see what happens here day to day. You will change your mind.”

“We always say we’d like not to be here,” she adds. “When we started we thought we might be around for five years. Well, this is our fifth year and the way things are going, I don’t think our work will be done for a long time.”

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