A day in the life of a London food bank

Outside a one-storey, blue-and-yellow constructing in Brent, northwest London, individuals are starting to collect. It is 10:30am on a Tuesday in mid-December. An aged lady shelters beneath the doorway because it begins to spit with rain. At 11am, the Sufra Food Bank on St Raphael’s Estate will start distributing its first emergency meals parcels of the day.

Situated between Wembley and the North Circular – a 40-kilometre (25-mile) ring street round Central London – St Raphael’s Estate is Brent’s most deprived neighbourhood. Prevalent because the post-war years in Britain, housing estates like St Raphael’s initially flourished, offering properties to hire at low price, but many have since turn into run down and uncared for.

Recent statistics present that one in three Brent households reside in poverty whereas, nationally, one in 5 reside under the poverty line. Now, more and more extra individuals are being pushed underneath the brink, discovering themselves unable to afford primary necessities.

In latest years, meals financial institution utilization within the UK has risen sharply following 10 years of presidency austerity measures, welfare reforms and a widening gulf between earnings and dwelling prices. With the financial downturn introduced on by the pandemic, which has additional exacerbated current inequalities, meals banks throughout the UK are struggling to satisfy demand.

Some of the contemporary meals out there at Sufra Food Bank in northwest London [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

“COVID didn’t create this problem, it just helped people to actually see it,” says Fahim Dahya, Sufra’s logistics and amenities supervisor, who helped arrange the meals financial institution with founder Mohammed Sadiq Mamdani in April 2013, after working at an area youth camp and witnessing the hardship households have been going through within the space.

Starting out working from a shared workplace in South Kilburn, they quickly managed to lift sufficient cash to relocate to the present constructing in Brent. When they first arrived, Fahim remembers the constructing was in complete disrepair: Broken home windows, no boiler, no heating, leaking ceiling, mouldy carpets. And essentially the most important half – the kitchen – was the scale of a cabinet. But they have been launched by Brent council to John Sisk & Son, the corporate which constructed the Wembley Stadium flats, which supplied to renovate the place without spending a dime. Later, they utilized for grants which enabled them to make use of a crew of full-time, paid employees.

Now, roughly half of Sufra’s earnings comes from particular person donors and companies through neighborhood fundraising. The different half comes from charities, trusts and foundations which it applies to for help grants.

While demand for the meals financial institution has grown steadily through the years, the pandemic has introduced unprecedented challenges. With many companies pressured to shut, workers within the UK with much less or no work are being placed on a furlough scheme, which ensures they nonetheless get 80 % of their common wage.

“We were expecting it to explode this week because the furlough scheme was going to end, then that got extended so the explosion hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen very soon,” says Fahim.

Fahim Dahya co-founded Sufra Food Bank in northwest London after witnessing poverty and hardship when he labored at an area youth camp [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

During the preliminary lockdown in March, the meals financial institution skilled a 200 % soar in demand in contrast with 2019 due to widespread job losses. “You’re not ready for that, and with the shops limiting stock, it was really, really difficult,” Fahim says. “We’ve got two phones and both lines would be constantly ringing.”

Not solely was the meals financial institution understaffed for the additional demand, nevertheless it was additionally pressured to restrict the variety of volunteers it might have within the constructing due to social distancing, so the charity needed to adapt shortly.

This meant closing the meals financial institution for 4 months and switching to 100% deliveries so that folks might nonetheless obtain emergency meals parcels in the course of the lockdown. They additionally needed to implement a brand new cellphone system to help distant working – a tough transition for a close-knit crew who depend on direct, face-to-face communication and a job during which being on the bottom is commonly important for the character of the work.

As Fahim says: “You don’t know what’s going on unless you’re on the ground and you feel it, see it.”

Inside Sufra, a meals financial institution in northwest London [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

‘Much more than just a food bank’

At the beginning of the day, Nina Parmar, a volunteer coordinator, offers me a tour of the positioning. “I think that Sufra is so much more than a food bank,” she says. “Community is at the heart of the different projects run by Sufra – we know that food aid is not the solution to food poverty and we are working hard to support our guests in so many other ways towards no longer needing to access the food bank.”

Before the pandemic acquired underneath means, meals financial institution friends could be invited inside and supplied a cup of tea whereas ready for his or her parcel to be packed.

On Friday nights, Sufra’s neighborhood kitchen would draw as much as 90 individuals and serve a freshly cooked three-course vegetarian scorching meal to anybody who turned up. For many residents, it was a much-loved social occasion encapsulating the that means of the Arabic time period, Sufra (or “Come to the table”). But, for now, the neighborhood kitchen is closed, with meals delivered as an alternative, whereas others acquire their meals parcels on the door. “The process has become a lot more sterile,” says Nina. “We’re just trying to be as risk-free as possible.”

Today, the primary house contained in the meals financial institution is empty barring a few volunteers sorting via bins of donated greens from grocery store surplus.

Crates of meals parcels awaiting assortment at Sufra Food Bank [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that Brent had the best general COVID-19 loss of life price out of all areas in England from March to June, a stark reflection of how essentially the most disadvantaged areas – particularly these with a excessive focus of Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities – have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Across the street, in a separate constructing with a storage facility, two volunteers pack meals parcels in accordance with household dimension. Designed to final every week, every parcel is stuffed with non-perishable meals gadgets, a bag of fruit and greens and toiletries.

A volunteer at Sufra meals financial institution in northwest London prepares to collect meals parcels for assortment on the door [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

“On an average foodbank session at the moment we have around 35 to 40 parcels collected,” Nina says. “In a week, across delivery and collection, we’re currently providing almost 300 parcels which are supporting just under 800 recipients.”

Once ready, parcels are shifted over to the primary constructing. Limited house means employees should coordinate throughout a number of areas which, Nina explains, isn’t ideally suited. Scanning the cabinets, she addresses a extra urgent concern: They are going via meals at an alarming price. In the primary six months of the pandemic, Sufra delivered 19,111 emergency meals parcels and 34,324 contemporary meals. While it nonetheless receives meals donations and funding, Nina says the meals financial institution can not proceed on the price it’s going.

Fresh meals is delivered, able to be sorted into meals parcels for households and folks in want in Brent, northwest London [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Back within the workplace, in the primary constructing, Fahim explains Sufra’s holistic method to meals help. “We started with the intention of a food bank and a kitchen. Now they may be our core services, but they’re only really there to get people’s feet through the door so we can actually help them, because that one food parcel in the reality of your life is nothing. It keeps you fit for a week, but it doesn’t solve any problem apart from that problem being there next week.”

Usually, individuals are referred to Sufra by one of many 100 referral companies it’s registered with within the native space, together with Brent Council, Wandsworth Social Services and Citizens Advice. But if somebody turns up on the door with out a referral, they’re directed to name Brent Hubs – one other referral company – and requested to fill out an internet kind.

While they don’t need to be chilly and strict, Fahim believes an open-door coverage could be not possible to handle. “That formality needs to be there because it stops people from abusing the system. Also, it’s there to stop us creating a dependency. This is emergency food aid and it needs to be treated in that way, otherwise, it’s not manageable or feasible.”

A voucher restrict additionally ensures that after an individual hits six meals parcels, their case is assessed by Sufra’s recommendation employees. “We then need to look at it because we’re now going from short-term emergency aid to long-term support,” says Fahim. “It’s also a way we can engage people, find out what their problem is, why they’re in that situation so that we can either signpost them or refer them to our advice workers to try and help them out.”

Ros Baptiste is without doubt one of the recommendation employees on the meals financial institution who helps friends with advantages claims, housing and immigration standing [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Sufra at present has two full-time recommendation employees – Ros and Zena – who present sensible help for meals financial institution friends with extra complicated points, reminiscent of social advantages, housing, employment and immigration standing.

Born in Trinidad, Ros Baptiste moved to the UK when she was 11 years outdated. She spent her teenagers in Yorkshire after which moved to London about 10 years later. As a resident of the property for 38 years, Ros has witnessed the modifications to the world with the UK’s largest regeneration challenge underneath means in neighbouring Wembley with plans to construct 11,500 properties by 2026 – lots of them luxurious flats. She has additionally personally skilled the neighbourhood’s distinctive isolation marooned as it’s between the stadium and a twin carriageway.

“You do get isolated. We are cut off,” she says. “We’ve learned over the years to plan around [Wembley stadium] event days. If there are road works going on anywhere, we have to organise around that as well. It all impacts on the North Circular, so the estate gets used as a second version of the North Circular, basically.”

In reality, a part of the goal behind the neighborhood kitchen at Sufra was to fight social isolation. “[Social isolation] is one of the big triggers of mental health,” explains Fahim, “which triggers homelessness … It’s all part of the cycle. [The community kitchen] is a way of getting them out, getting them involved in something.”

Food and home goods are stacked, able to be sorted into particular person parcels [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

When Sufra first arrange on the property, Ros volunteered to work in the neighborhood kitchen each Friday, however after being made redundant in 2017, she ended up spending extra time on the meals financial institution than at dwelling. Now, she works full-time at Sufra as a welfare recommendation employee, a job that encompasses the whole lot from one-to-one casework, to working workshops on topics like tenancies, vitality effectivity, how one can learn and perceive gasoline metres and speak to vitality suppliers – a system Ros is adept at navigating due to her earlier job working for an vitality charity.

Due to the pandemic, Ros says she is seeing extra instances than standard due to job losses and profit delays. She estimates she at present has about 30 open instances at varied phases.

“[I’m seeing people with families] who were furloughed during the first wave of the pandemic, working part-time, claiming Universal Credit,” she says. Introduced in 2013 by the UK’s Conservative authorities, Universal Credit aimed to simplify welfare by changing six current advantages (together with jobseeker’s allowance and youngster tax credit). The authorities heralded it as a strategy to encourage individuals again into work (as it’s paid to working individuals in addition to these looking for employment) nevertheless it has since been criticised due to backlogs, delays in paying it and the issues attributable to recalculating it when individuals’s incomes change.

“So, once furlough stopped, I’ve got families whose income has now dropped to less than half of what they had,” she says.

Ros provides that many individuals are having to resolve between shopping for meals or heating their dwelling, an not possible alternative within the UK in winter when temperatures drop to lower than three levels Celsius (37 levels Fahrenheit). “Some of the people that come to me, they come because there’s nothing left. Luckily, the majority of them are usually getting Housing Benefit (which helps those on low incomes with housing costs). However, that doesn’t cover food or bills.”


Mohammad Yawar Ali, one in every of Sufra’s supply drivers says he by no means meant to work within the charity sector, however misplaced his job final yr [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Working full time, however no cash for meals

Anthoinette, a mom of two, is visiting the meals financial institution for the primary time. She has taken a bus to get right here and arrives along with her 10-month-old daughter, who blinks wearily at me via the pram’s plastic window.

Anthoinette suffered from issues throughout supply and needed to have a caesarean. After the start, she was suggested to remain dwelling due to her well being and the danger of contracting COVID-19. Her daughter, in the meantime, needed to stay in hospital because it was found she had three holes in her coronary heart and wanted an operation. She additionally had two eye surgical procedures due to issues along with her corneas.

It was a annoying time for Anthoinette, particularly seeing her child on a ventilator. She additionally shortly realised she wanted further help. Unable to work, she is now a full-time mom. Although her husband works full-time with the Metropolitan Police, his wage doesn’t stretch far with the excessive dwelling prices in London. But, “he’s doing his best,” she says.

“COVID was another problem,” she provides. “He has to go to work and I am home and there is no food. I can’t go out to the shop. I can’t cook. I can’t sleep. It was too much.”

Anthoinette contacted an organisation known as Home-Start, which helps households scuffling with points reminiscent of postnatal melancholy, isolation and bodily well being issues. Home-Start referred her on to the meals financial institution. “They helped a lot because the pregnancy was tough and after [my baby] was sick, I couldn’t eat. I’d come back to my house depressed, so they were the ones helping me deal with a lot of things,” she says.

“There’s millions of people in this country and lots of families need help. It’s hard because the pandemic has slowed the economy. A lot of things have gone wrong. Many parents lost their jobs because of COVID and it’s hard for them to feed their kids. I’ve never had to use a food bank before. This is my first time.”

Food parcels wait to be collected at Sufra Food Bank in northwest London [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Anthoinette and her husband are usually not the one household with a wage coming in who’s struggling. According to the Trussell Trust, a community of meals banks within the UK, one in seven individuals coming to meals banks are in employment, or reside with somebody who’s.

Lynne Kennedy, professor of Public Health Nutrition and head of the Department of Clinical Sciences and Nutrition on the University of Chester, says: “Based on our analysis domestically, exploring the lived experiences of meals poverty and entry to meals throughout COVID, we’ve got discovered that, in contrast to beforehand, a better variety of people who find themselves struggling to make ends meet are in full or part-time employment, and/or furlough; households speak concerning the real wrestle, dwelling from one invoice to the following, any surprising calls for or payments could cause a downward spiral, with meals budgets the primary to be minimize as a result of they’re essentially the most versatile family merchandise.

“What is particularly interesting is that because this is the first time for some families to fall into poverty or financial hardship, they lack the strategies used by those families who might be used to living ‘on the breadline’, so to speak, who are able to draw upon strategies or support networks in times of emergency.”

Wais Sultani, 29, from Afghanistan, is making use of for asylum within the UK. He is unable to earn a lot and has a spouse and eight-month-old child to help [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

The asylum seeker

Wais Sultani’s face lights up when he recollects his earlier job in Afghanistan. He held a managerial function greeting VIP friends at Kabul Airport however was pressured to depart after the conflict escalated in Afghanistan. Wais, 29, says the Taliban tried to recruit him, however as he didn’t agree with them they started sending him loss of life threats. That was the second he determined to flee the nation.

Wais got here to the UK in 2015. But after submitting his asylum declare, it was denied though he says he doesn’t know why. He is now making a brand new asylum declare however he doesn’t have permission to work. He initially slept at mates’ homes and typically labored a cash-in-hand job at night time cleansing at a store in South London simply to have the ability to purchase some meals.

After getting married final February, nevertheless, Wais’s bills elevated. While he waits for a call from the Home Office on his new asylum declare, Wais has been dwelling along with his pregnant spouse and their eight-month-old child in a primary lodge room supplied by the council.

They have now been there for 4 months. Wais receives 100 kilos ($136) a month from the council, which he says isn’t sufficient to cowl primary requirements. After approaching social companies for help, he was directed to Sufra. Today, it’s his sixth go to up to now two months.

“Before the pandemic, things were good; at least my friends helped me,” he says. “But since the pandemic started, no one even listens to me or wants to help me. I hope one day I’ll get the work permit, start working and have a happy life with my wife and sons.”

Abdalkarim Sama, 68, moved to the UK from Uganda in 1971. He has volunteered at Sufra Food Bank in northwest London for the previous seven years [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

‘If I can help someone, it’s good for me’

Back inside, 68-year-old volunteer Abdalkarim Sama is taking a fast lunch break.

“I like helping people. If I can help someone, it’s good for me,” he says. Born in Uganda, Abdalkarim moved to the UK in 1971 and labored as a metallic engineer in Wembley till his final agency, which he managed, shut down seven years in the past. One day on the grocery store, he noticed volunteers amassing for Sufra so he requested if he might assist out. He has been volunteering with them ever since.

Reflecting on his seven years at Sufra, Abdalkarim recollects one explicit encounter that has stayed with him: “There was one guy who asked for food. He hadn’t eaten in a long time. Once he started eating, he said, ‘I feel like a king’. It made me feel like I’m doing something to help, and I always wanted to help people. Back in Uganda, my father used to do the same thing, helping people who had problems getting food.”

A noticeboard at Sufra Food Bank carries messages of hope and thanks from beneficiaries [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Throughout the afternoon, extra individuals come via the meals financial institution. Someone collects meals for a household of six. A Polish man who misplaced his job as a builder after he broke his leg in an accident and now lives in a hostel arrives. A mom and her 19-year-old daughter, who’ve travelled from the close by suburb of Neasden after being referred to the meals financial institution by a health care provider because the father’s earnings from his job as a grocer don’t cowl bills after hire and payments are paid every month. While the meals financial institution has been a lifeline for them – particularly in the course of the pandemic – the daughter is set to seek out work. She says she has been making use of for a yr and can’t get a job. “It’s really hard,” she says. “I wish somebody would give me a job. I don’t mind doing cleaning, at least I get paid.”

A volunteer helps out with collections on the door of the meals financial institution [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

By 2:45pm, quarter-hour earlier than the meals financial institution closes for the day, there have been 25 meals parcel collections – a quieter day than standard. But Sufra’s work isn’t completed. In addition to a meals parcel supply service for these unable to gather in particular person, Sufra runs a each day scorching meal supply service which stays ongoing since May, designed for individuals with bodily or psychological disabilities who’re unable to prepare dinner, in addition to homeless individuals in non permanent lodging which lack cooking amenities.

Mohammad Yawar Ali, a supply driver at Sufra Food Bank in northwest London [Eva Clifford/Al Jazeera]

Muhammad Yawar Ali, 38, is one in every of Sufra’s paid supply drivers. He by no means meant to enter the charity sector, however was made redundant from his job final yr and noticed that Sufra was recruiting. Before this, he was working for an organization however says he can not think about returning to an workplace job now.

Ali reveals me a listing of the addresses he will likely be delivering to this night and makes use of an app on his cellphone to map the most effective route.

“We all have our struggles,” he says. “But the thing is when you get stuck in your own bubble you think it is what it is, but it isn’t. You see other people and realise that your struggles aren’t that much; people are actually in more difficult positions than you are. It puts things in perspective.”