When Pastor Bola picks up the phone, she’s facing a dilemma. Surrounded by plastic bags and food crates, her team still needs to make up another 50 food parcels for the day, but she fears she doesn’t have enough for ten. Today, the only answer is thinning out the bags and saving the tins for those who don’t have the kitchen facilities to cook fresh food.
Lockdown has put an unprecedented squeeze on the nation’s food banks. According to the Food Foundation, over three million people in Britain are going hungry right now, many of whom are turning to food banks like the one at His Grace Evangelical Outreach Church in Thornton Heath, where Pastor Bola works lead as a non-salaried worker.
This church alone is now serving over 500 clients a week. Most of those clients are people who haven’t asked for help before, including breadwinners of families who have been made redundant, furloughed workers on low pay who can’t take that 20 per cent pay cut, or those who are stuck in the five-week wait for Universal Credit.
More vulnerable clients are coming in too, including people just released from prison under a scheme designed to control infections amongst inmates. These new clients now join socially distancing queues alongside more regular clients who are becoming more dependent on Pastor Bola as other forms of support, like soup kitchens, close in the face of safety concerns.
Volunteers know the risks. These heroic individuals are less recognised than those in the NHS and are certainly not given priority for personal protective equipment. On top of that, some food banks are reporting an increase in anti-social behaviour, as vulnerable people desperate for limited supplies become fearful or impatient. Pastor Bola, who works six days a week at the food bank and has people around her who are asthmatic, describes every day as “a walk of faith”.
Food banks have shown great speed and resilience in adapting to these risks. In the church, service users must keep six metres apart and only receive a call to pick up when their parcel is ready. In the past, clients were asked to bring their own bags, but now volunteers have managed to secure 500 new ones from Tesco to reduce contamination risks.
Of course, for some of those going hungry, the problem is not just money but the need to self-isolate. Not everyone can leave the house to get food. To help with these cases, many food banks have instituted a delivery system run by volunteer drivers.
Heroic and admirable though these efforts are, we know that in the long term food banks cannot be the answer. Many fear a further surge in need when rent freezes end, support for furloughed workers is replaced by redundancy, and crisis loans need repaying.
Pastor Bola and her team deserve to be honoured as heroes in our community history, but they cannot substitute for job security. Many of her service users desire the dignity and independence of fairly-paid labour. Pastor Bola and her team know that, and they are praying for it.