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Social Justice

Diary of a food bank manager: Summer usually provides some respite. Not this year

Despite the heatwave, numbers are higher than ever at this food bank in south London where the summer is usually a respite.

After the challenges of winter, summer usually provides some respite at the food bank. But not this summer. Numbers are higher than ever: we’re only halfway through July and we’ve already registered more new guests than the whole of February. The cost-of-living crisis — on top of years of austerity, the pandemic, the cut to universal credit cut and the end of furlough — continues to drive new people to our doors at an alarming rate.

And now the current heatwave presents additional challenges for our guests. As I write this on Monday, the temperature in south-west London is 37 degrees. It’s predicted to rise to over 40 on Tuesday. How are our guests coping? 

First, there are challenges dealing with the practical aspects of keeping cool and keeping safe in the sun. Government guidance is widespread throughout the media but some of the simple pieces of advice are a stretch for those already pushed to the limit.  

Guest Jill, aged 65, says: “I’ve got an electric fan, but I can’t bear the thought of what the electricity will cost. We’re broke already. I couldn’t pay last month’s bill, and everything’s got more expensive since then.”

Another guest, Edie is equally exasperated. “It’s just more expenditure isn’t it? Sunscreen – the school keep emailing about that – but we can only afford if we replace something else on the shopping list. 

“And washing too – I’ve been trying not to wash clothes too much, as it’s so expensive – running the machine and also washing powder. But in this heat, you need to wash things all the time.”

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In the last few months, Edie has dealt with multiple Covid cases in the family, losing her job as a carer, plus her husband’s hours being reduced to just a few hours a week. She used to be an occasional visitor to the food bank but we now see her most weeks. She lives in a high-rise flat in Wandsworth. “What more can be thrown at us?,” she asks.

And then there’s the mental pressure. In Tom Pollard’s excellent report “Pushed to the Edge: Poverty, Food Banks and Mental Health”, he talks about the loneliness, isolation, boredom and lack of energy that goes hand in hand with poverty. Several guests report that this mental pressure grows heavier in this overbearing heat.

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“My flat is a hazard. I sit here in the chair all day, looking at the broken window,” says Sara, who is in her sixties and lives on the 4th floor of a housing estate. 

Jill has multiple health issues and she feels her health has worsened in the heat. As a result, she struggles to get to the food bank in person. We arrange a delivery for her, hoping it’s temporary, as often her Thursday food bank visit is her only chance to socialise. 

“I feel more trapped than ever,” she says. “It’s like lockdown again except this time I’m trapped in a baking hot flat and I can’t sleep”. 

Alexander is a new guest. He’s homeless and found the food bank by accident when he was looking for somewhere cool and safe to sleep at night. He talks about the challenges of having no money and sleeping rough in this weather. “Being thirsty is worse than being hungry. You can live with hunger.”

Will there be any respite for our guests? The financial support from the chancellor has started to arrive in bank accounts, but for too many, it won’t be enough to stave off the poverty and deprivation that’s ahead. 

It sadly seems that whatever crisis or emergency we go through as a country – lockdown, recession, heatwave – those who have the least will suffer the most.  

Earlsfield Foodbank is a member of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which campaigns for a cash first approach to food insecurityTom Pollard recently spoke with people at the food bank  for his report on poverty, food banks and mental health in collaboration with IFAN and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. You can access IFAN’s cash first referral leaflets designed to help people facing worries access advice and support here. Take action and write to your MP using IFAN’s template letter here.

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