Back in April, Caritas Westminster sent out over £30,000 in emergency food vouchers to be distributed by parishes and schools to those most in need, through the Caritas Emergency Food Voucher Scheme. The COVID-19 pandemic has left many people in difficult financial positions as businesses close, work dries up and budgets have to stretch further, whilst children are out of school. However, for many schools, food poverty was already something they were tackling with, long before the current pandemic struck us.
At St Bernadette’s Primary School in Kenton, headteacher David O’Farrell, has been supporting families in need for many years. As many families in his school community were unable to access the local Trussell Trust food bank (due to referral restrictions), he set up his own food bank in the school playground, supported by the parish church. Anybody who is part of the school community can ask for the key to access the food; they are then left and trusted to take what they need. There are currently around ten families using the food bank. Conscious that many families need this extra food provision, but do not feel comfortable using the food bank, he also has food parcels made up and ready to be given to those he feels need it.
Although the need is present all year round, the school holidays are particularly challenging for parents, especially those who are struggling to buy food. This is because the provision of free school meals is limited to term time only. In addition, many of the children attending St Bernadette’s are either not eligible to receive this free meal entitlement, or feel stigmatised by availing of it. It was this aspect of food insecurity that prompted the Caritas Food Collective to launch its Family Holiday Clubs in October 2019, in partnership with 7 schools and parishes across the Diocese of Westminster. Most of these schools, including St Bernadette’s, host a family holiday club during the half term holidays, where families can attend and partake in sports, crafts, and parent information sessions, whilst also receiving a nutritious lunch and fresh fruit and vegetables to take home with them, courtesy of The Felix Project. Running in October and February 2020, over 180 families have come to these clubs, with 524 individuals attending.
As with all of the Caritas Food Collective partner schools, Caritas has been engaged with St Bernadette’s to see how we can work closer with them during the current pandemic, to see what relief can be provided on a more regular basis. Prior to the family holiday clubs, David had already suggested the use of supermarket vouchers, which could both meet the demand of those needing food and uphold the dignity of the families. It was this idea that the Caritas Food Collective put into action back in April.
The school was one of the first to receive Caritas Emergency Food Vouchers. David had informed Caritas that his food bank was depleted and he had had to turn three families away. Since receiving the vouchers, he has been distributing them to his usual food bank users, as well as those on the Free School Meals register. He told us: ‘They have filled a hole for us while we wait for the Government’s scheme to kick in and they have supplemented our offer to families in need. There has been an increase in need as people already on low incomes and on zero hours contracts lose their jobs and in some cases their homes.
‘One family who have recently been made homeless had been placed in a one bedroom flat in very difficult living conditions. When I sent the mother vouchers and gave her some supplies from our food bank she cried, saying it was the first act of kindness she had had since we had closed.’
The established partnership between Caritas Westminster and schools like St Bernadette’s has allowed the continuation of great work already underway within the school community, by enhancing and extending the support they can offer to families. Describing how our relationship has strengthened during lockdown, David asks us to ‘keep doing what [we] are doing- it is much appreciated and very supportive…families are being fed.’
If you would like to support this work you can donate to the Cardinal’s Appeal, which has been extended to raise funds to help deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – please donate here.
If your parish or school are in need of support to help those in your community please contact email@example.com and we will do our best to help!