Can you remember what life was like just two weekends ago? It feels like a distant memory – but at a food bank in south London, volunteers were already meeting people whose lives were being turned upside down as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
One mum was there for the first time because all her shifts with a catering company had been cancelled indefinitely, hurling her into crisis: “I never thought I’d need your help, I normally donate to you,” she told volunteers. Thousands of people without enough money for food have been pushed to their local food bank in the two weeks since.
That weekend, the food bank was already running differently. There were no hour-long chats over cups of tea between volunteers and people needing help. Instead, people were greeted at the door, offered a hot drink to take away, and given a food bank parcel, with as much dignity as possible while abiding by the government’s guidance.
Only people unable to stand while waiting were coming into the food bank centre to ensure social distancing was maintained – there wasn’t much room after all, fewer tables can be put out when you need to space them at least two metres apart.
But things have moved fast since then. Now, that food bank centre won’t be open. Like many across the UK, it’s moved to a food delivery service to ensure emergency food still reaches the people who need it most – volunteers are pre-packing food bank parcels and dropping them off outside people’s homes. Food banks have had to adapt quickly in order to get food to people who can’t afford it in the safest way possible.
What this looks like varies from one food bank to another. At the Trussell Trust we’ve been issuing daily guidance and working closely with food banks to support each one to provide help safely. I knew before that food banks were filled with resilient, proactive, determined people – but I’ve been astounded at the way they’ve faced this challenge head on.
And they’ve been able to because of the power of our communities. The strength we have when we act together. From football clubs, businesses, schools and celebrities, through to people dropping off a donation of UHT milk during a shop, there has been an outpouring of support.
If there was ever any doubt that people in this country deeply care about each other, that has been put to rest by the past fortnight. This pandemic has reminded us that the unexpected happens. We are not invincible. There are terrible, dangerous things outside of our control. But when we face them together, we have a collective power that we shouldn’t underestimate. Campaigns like Help The Hungry help spread that word during a difficult time.
We must now use that collective compassion and power to end the need for food banks. Food banks across the UK have been doing phenomenal work in the past few weeks – but providing this support shouldn’t fall to a charity. People should have enough money in their pockets to afford the basics like food. Together, we must make that happen.
We have a benefits system that should prevent us from needing a food bank’s help. Half a million people have made an application for universal credit since that mum arrived at a London food bank just two weeks ago. Yet all of those people will have to wait at least five weeks for a first payment – just because of the way the system’s designed. That design must change.
The government’s current approach of offering people loans that must be paid back is insufficient and it puts people between a rock and a hard place – hardship now, or hardship later?
This awful pandemic has reminded many of us of a few things, and, for me, the power of community has never been clearer. If you feel like you want to, and are able to help, there are two key things you can do right now.
First, if you’re able to, you can help a food bank in your community during the immediate crisis by donating food or signing up to volunteer. Remember, your local food bank might not be in our network – in which case check here.
Second, you can join the #5WeeksTooLong campaign to end the five week wait for universal credit. This will help people get the money they need from day one.
We have already shown that as a country, we can work together to face this crisis. We have more work to do to make sure we all have enough money to put food on the table. But it can be done.
Thousands of people have already been pushed to their local food bank during this pandemic – but with your help, standing alongside your community, this can change.
Emma Revie is chief executive of the Trussell Trust
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies