Everything should have been fine: I had the letter of permission, I spoke to the manager upon arriving, I was careful not to take too much.
But I was still harassed while shopping for supplies in my foodbank fleece.
A shopper started to swear at me as I put essentials in my trolley – UHT milk tinned meat and veg, as well as things like rice pudding and biscuits that many of our clients need for energy.
With a friend, the shopper followed me, hurling abuse as I went from aisle to aisle. One of them elbowed me in the ribs as I passed. I left the store shaking with rage and indignation, scared of being a target, and feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness.
Coronavirus has put huge pressure on foodbanks. I’ve worked for Hackney Foodbank for three years and the role has always been high-pressured – though never like this. Since the crisis first unfolded, the number of people needing emergency food from us has gone through the roof.
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Across the UK, foodbanks in the Trussell Trust network, which we are part of, have experienced an 81 per cent increase in need during the last two weeks of March, compared to the same period in 2019. This includes an 122 per cent rise in parcels given to children. This isn’t right.
As the crisis has worsened in recent weeks, I’ve listened to the stories of people who never expected to need a foodbank until now.
I’ve watched as the numbers needing support get higher and higher – and these rising figures are going to keep growing unless sufficient support is in place to protect us all from poverty.
At the start of the pandemic, I spent many nights sleepless, anxious about deliveries and whether we were going to have enough supplies to feed everyone.
This was partly due to a drop in our usual donations and partly because the regular means of topping up shelves (like online shopping) were no longer available. Instead, we had to request special permission from supermarkets to buy items in bulk.
But even this didn’t provide an ideal solution – not least due to the weight of the food and the ire of other shoppers.
That anger I experienced towards me whilst shopping was as disappointing as it was infuriating. I had to walk away from the situation, leaving it unresolved. I paid for our essential goods and left, knowing that this was not a safe option for us to repeat.
I started looking into wholesalers and found one that we could buy in bulk from. This worked well for a week but then they too found themselves at the mercy of panic buying, meaning they were no longer able to guarantee supplies.
The resulting sense of turmoil was unbearable. I know not everyone supports foodbanks, but after the incident in the supermarket I left feeling hyper-aware that some individuals simply don’t understand how we are helping real people.
Numbers don’t tell you about those who need to use a foodbank. The woman who lost her much-loved job as a prison warden. She’s so upbeat – but you can feel the heartbreak as she struggles to find new work.
They don’t tell you about the 25-year-old man who came to us full of apologies – he’d recently left hospital and yet felt like he didn’t deserve help.
They don’t tell you about the families we see – like the mother who came in last week because her work as a cleaner vanished overnight and whose seven-month-old is hungry.
It is always the thought of these people – our clients – that keep me going. As a teenager I always believed I was going to change the world, but it wasn’t until I joined the Hackney Foodbank that I felt I was really able to make a difference. It is hard, but it is also the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.
And the crisis has brought out the best in people too – it hurts no one to show compassion.
We’ve benefited from an influx of amazing new volunteers. Many who usually help us have been advised to isolate, but now freelancers and furloughed workers want to help. It’s incredible to see this level of support. We hope many will continue to work with us as lockdown eases.
Likewise, businesses have been stepping up to help our communities. Early on in the pandemic, I received a call from Deborah Sayagh at Investec. Living in Hackney, she wanted to know how they could help us. Within days they’d developed a new supply chain for foodbanks in east London, using Aldi for deliveries.
It was such a relief. The team and I can breathe now, because we know – no matter the demand – we can provide the essentials people really need.
The thing is, UK foodbanks should not be a long-term solution. We should all have enough money for the basics.
We can’t go back to the way things were before.
But my hope is that we will learn from this crisis – working in collaboration with communities, businesses and councils. That we can end the need for foodbanks together.
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