For World Day of the Poor, Sunday 19 November, we are pleased to showcase the work of the many volunteers at the food bank at the Sacred Heart Church in Holloway – and to highlight in particular the teenagers who regularly give their time – as the Pope says, in his message for World Day of the Poor, “They are not superheroes but ‘next door neighbours’”
With thanks to volunteer Paul Nunn for this short history celebrating all the foodbank has achieved since 2020.
“You’re providing a real service here – don’t give up. It’s really helping us.” – A client of the foodbank.
Young and older volunteers filling baskets in the store
on a foodbank day
Covid-19 changed the world – even Holloway. We all locked ourselves down, and the vulnerable and elderly were instructed to shield. We started with deliveries of food parcels to those who were shielding, thanks to donations of time and money from parishioners and food vouchers from Caritas Westminster, and with the support of our Parish Priest. This quickly expanded by January 2021 to setting up a foodbank, with funding from the London Borough of Islington and the Diocese of Westminster Cardinal’s Appeal.
The Foodbank operated every other Saturday morning giving out non-perishable food, household cleaning stuff and toiletries to anyone who came. More than 40% came from the postcodes nearest us, and the rest from all over London, mainly from the North and East. Soon we had over 20 families coming for each session, which rose steadily, and has continued to increase. Now we regularly see over 100 families each session, and recently we have topped 120. Choice is important, so our clients can choose up to 15 items from our total list of about 40.
While we started with the one objective of providing food and other essentials to those who either couldn’t afford it, or couldn’t access it, we realised that many of our clients were, in fact, living on the edges of society. Following chats with Caritas staff we decided to try and address this “social exclusion”. In November 2022, we began to offer people a cup of tea or coffee and a warm space in the parish centre, and chance to chat with other clients or volunteers. Since December we have also offered a hot vegetarian meal – very popular with clients and volunteers alike – prepared by one family.
Slices of water melon in the summer disappear like, well, slices of watermelon, especially among the kids. The National Lottery Community Fund has supported this expansion. The Cripplegate Foundation – Islington Giving, and the Arsenal Foundation have also provided funding.
We now have over 500 families and single people registered. Of these 58% have come for 5 sessions or less, implying that we are responding mostly to an acute need, such as a reduction in benefits, a job loss or illness. The UK benefits system is not very generous, and nor are some employers – we know that 25% of clients are actually in work, but not being paid enough to feed their families. Women outnumber men almost 2 to 1. Leaving aside those who are living alone, nearly 90% of those who register are the sole provider for their families. 42% of all those registered were over 65, raising questions about how much efforts to increase clients’ “resilience” will be.
The organisers are all volunteers. A strong group of 3, plus occasional helpers, does the buying – seeking out low cost, but good quality items from supermarkets and wholesalers. The Parish provides support from their Administrator, and storage space. All income therefore goes to buy provisions. At each session we have teams on the front desk, in the kitchen, and in the store, filling and bringing over the baskets of food to the Centre.
Our confirmation candidates have always done something charitable. Asked if they wanted to help at the foodbank, many jumped at it, and are doing sterling work, especially basket carrying. Once confirmed, many still help out – “We enjoy spending time with our friends, and at the same time helping people”, “It gets so busy that we don’t feel the time.” Parents are happy with them helping, and we give those that ask for it a volunteering reference certificate. They know that the experience will improve their CVs, and some are helping as part of their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award projects.
For the future, we are trying hard to get fresh food from the surplus food suppliers, and we are ready to move up to a weekly operation once we have got that working. We know we need to respond better to clients’ specific needs, which means knowing more about what those needs are, and bringing in expertise to help address them.