Richard and three other women have just finished their main course, a makeshift saag aloo with no coriander ‘because it tastes like soap to some people’.
The group have spent the better part of the early afternoon discussing the pros and cons of all the different food banks they visit on a daily basis.
This lunch, at the New Kingshold Community Centre in Hackney, east London, is the first of two Foodcycle meals Richard will eat today. He will get his dinner from a different branch in Walthamstow tonight, his lunch from one in Woolwich tomorrow and dinner from another in Bow Road.
This is how the 64-year-old makes sure he eats – visiting between six and eight Foodcycles a week and using soup kitchens to fill in any gaps.
Volunteers at the charity are adamant about not using the words ‘food bank’ to describe it. This is because, rather than being a place where people can collect groceries and then return home, Foodcycle is a place which provides something many of us take for granted – the opportunity to sit with other people and eat a meal together.
Richard says: ‘It’s a place to go. See, in my flat, I’m all alone.’ He adds that he probably wouldn’t see anyone if he didn’t spend his days going from one charity to another.
‘Even though I’m not homeless I also go to day centres for the homeless for the same reason I go to Foodcycles – for the community,’ he continues.
But Richard is also one of many people who rely on Foodcycle to help with their financial situations, especially in the midst of the cost of living crisis.
He starts to tell how being ‘so close to state pension age is a relief’ before Maria, who is sitting next to him, interrupts to say: ‘I can’t wait to become a pensioner. And that’s not a nice thing to say but I can’t wait to get a bit more money. It’s terrible that I’m looking forward to getting to the age of 66 to get more money.’
Maria’s friend Marysc nods her head in agreement and says ‘yes’ several times. The pair come to get a Foodcycle meal in Hackney every single Thursday. They always sit in the in same chairs, at the back-left table.
‘We can’t afford things like this – curry and rice,’ Maria says.
The friends say they have to use food banks so they can afford to pay their bills. But recently the banks have been ‘running out of food to give’, they say.
Maria said: ‘There’s so many people now. Every time we go to a food bank there’s people that you wouldn’t expect to be there. You know, working people like doctors and nurses. And there’s women with children.
‘Before, when we would go to a food bank, they might give us a bag of apples. Now they’re giving us one apple.
‘If it weren’t for me coming here and going to a food bank, I wouldn’t be able to survive. The money isn’t enough to buy what we need. Fruit has gone up, everything has gone up.
‘And now when we go to the food banks, they don’t have milk – they’ve stopped giving us milk, tea, coffee. They give us bread which helps us.’
She goes on to tell how volunteers at one food bank had warned her and Marysc that they were worried they wouldn’t have enough to give away.
‘Before I would get a trolley full of food, now I’m lucky if I get five items,’ Maria says.
Describing the growing number of people she’s seen relying on food banks, she explains that her and Marysc sometimes queue for an hour and a half to get into the food bank they usually visit on a Saturday.
‘They don’t open until 11am but when we get there at 10am, there’s already a load of people in the queue,’ she said. ‘Then we only get five or six items – it all comes in handy but we’re not getting what we need.’
Over the past year, Foodcycle has recorded a 59% increase in the number of community meals being served – this is why they are calling on more people around to country to join their organisation as hosts or cooking volunteers.
The charity’s CEO Mary McGrath said: ‘We’re feeding people from all walks of life – families, people with full-time jobs, refugees and the elderly.
‘With the cost of living and rising food prices we anticipate that this will only increase, some of our guests tell us that they can’t even afford to put the kettle on let alone afford to cook a nutritious meal.’
Some 800,000 British households (3%) relied on food banks to eat in the year ending in March 2022, the most recent period covered by official government data.
While the data, published by the Department for Work and Pensions in March this year, covers some of the pandemic, it stops short of the energy crisis which hit last April.
But The Trussell Trust revealed that food banks in its UK-wide network had handed out nearly three million emergency food parcels in the year ending in March.
The charity, which works to end the need for food banks in the UK, recorded 2,986,203 emergency food parcels given out – more than double the amount distributed by food banks in the same period five years ago.
It also found that more than 760,000 people used a food bank in the Trussell Trust network for the first time- More than the entire population of Sheffield.
The cost of living crisis has skyrocketed the price of energy bills, house prices and basic groceries.
Consumer champion Which? created a monthly inflation tracker, which shows that the price of many food items is rising much more sharply than the rate of inflation (currently at 8.1%). For example, cheese rose by 25.5% in the year ending in April and milk by 22.9%.
The level of food price inflation is currently the second-fastest increase the British Retail Consortium has ever measured, with the inflation of an overall shop price inflation rising from 8.8% to 9% in May.
Food price increases as of April 2023
- Cheese: 25.5%
- Milk: 22.9%
- Yoghurt: 21.8%
- Butters & spreads: 21.6%
- Water: 20.3%
- Cakes and cookies 19.4%
- Bakery: 19.3%
- Juice drinks and smoothies117.9%
- Crisps: 17.7%
- Fish: 16.5%
- Savoury pies, pastries and quiches:16.5%
- Vegetables: 15.3%
- Chilled ready meals 13.9%
- Fizzy drinks:12.8%
- Energy drinks: 11.1%
- Fresh fruit: 10.2%
Fortunately, inflation started to fall towards the end of last year and the Bank of England expects it to continue doing so throughout 2023.
However, the price of food is set to remain extremely high for the forseeable future.
More than 87,000 people have signed a Which? petition calling on supermarkets to take action and there have been rumours the government is considering introducing voluntary price caps on groceries.
But the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs said: ‘The government has not and will not consider imposing price caps.
‘We know the pressure households are under with rising costs and while inflation is coming down, food prices remain stubbornly high.
‘We continue to support households through our £94bn package, worth £3,300 on average per household this year and last.’
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