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Photograph: Time Out London/Trussel Trust

View from the Frontline: the food bank volunteer

Trussell Trust volunteer Rachel Antelme on keeping her local food bank in Wandsworth running

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I’ve been volunteering for nearly five years for Wandsworth Food Bank, which is a Trussell Trust food bank. Pre-Covid, I’d help out twice a week. When the crisis hit I got asked to help in a much more involved way, going from twice a week to full time. I’m in a really fortunate position that I could do that.

Before Covid, the Wandsworth Food Bank was open every day of the week. The guests would bring their voucher to the food bank, one of us would sit down with them, give them a cup of tea, have a chat and sort out getting them the food. The main thing wasn’t the food, it was working out why they’re in a crisis and trying to get them out of it. They’d go away with some food, and hopefully some hope, having been listened to. Now that process has to happen on the phone. 

There was a massive issue with lots of kids who normally had free school meals. Their schools closed and their parents were trying to work from home and look after children, and they were having to give them lunch, which they weren’t normally doing. It caused chaos. I’d ring them up and work out allergies and how to deliver [lunch], and give them advice to get out of their crisis.

The team have been amazing. We have four employed people and a lot of volunteers. So many people have offered to volunteer that there’s now a waiting list.

Lots of people are struggling with their mental health at the moment. They need food but they also need help mentally. We try to refer them to places like Talk Wandsworth or Shout, which is a text line, and I have a bunch of volunteers who phone people who just want a chat because they’re miserable.

I’ve spoken to some people whose relative has died and they couldn’t go to the funeral. A lot of our guests have little support from friends and family, and a lot are ill or shielding. Their already limited support is severely reduced so they’re struggling with their mental health. 

There’s an analogy that the world is in an awful storm at the moment but we’re not in the same boat. Some people have a nice boat, some have an unstable raft, some are in the water. There are very different ways of the storm hitting you. We wish everyone had a life raft as a minimum to help them stay afloat. We’re all going through the same thing but it impacts people very differently – if you’re already struggling to get basic essentials when the storm hits you’re really going to struggle to survive. 

We have a mother with three young kids in a flat. It’s difficult to go out at the moment and you can only really go to your local shop where the price of pasta has gone from 50p to £1.80, and things like toilet roll and nappies have become more expensive. Suddenly, what you used to be able to cope on is not enough. Lots of people don’t have a safety net in London. 

It’s amazing the food bank is there, but I wish there was no need for us. People ask if it’s a successful charity, but a success for us would be if we didn't exist. 

In London there was the issue of not being able to get out, particularly at the beginning. You’re stuck in a flat, the kids are there, it’s hot, one of them is ill. Over 50 percent of people who have been referred to us have been referred because of income levels – they just don’t have enough income to cover basic essentials: food, electricity, rent. London is so expensive. 

I’ve had people who have had their electricity cut because they can’t pay it but they’ve needed it for medical reasons, which is so sad. I’ve seen people begging for food because they only have six slices of bread left. 

Some people really don’t have enough food. Some of these people still have a job, but loads of people have lost that and are ashamed. We have to reassure them there’s no guilt or shame. It could be you or me tomorrow. 

I think it will get worse. Loads of people have been furloughed or lost their jobs, or their kids still aren’t at school, so it’s really difficult. Quite a lot of people have long-term health conditions too, so they can’t go out and find a job. Some people don’t have internet access. If you’ve lost your job or your income has gone down, it’s not easy to find a job at the moment. For lots of people their income might be the same but food costs have gone up and they’re paying for their children to have lunch every day. There’s a voucher scheme but not everyone has accessed that. 

We have some guests who are homeless. If you’re homeless at the moment, it’s not easy to social distance if you don’t have anywhere to live. We’re predicting it’ll carry on getting worse for some time.

The support from the community has been amazing. People have been generous. The best way for people to give is online and then we can get the right food we need at the right time. At one point, as you can imagine, there was no loo roll or long-life milk and the community has been so generous. We normally give enough food for a three-day emergency and we’ve been able to change that to seven days. 

The number of people using our food bank has more than doubled. We think it’s entirely related to the pandemic and all the knock-on effects. Since the pandemic, we’ve given parcels to 2,720 people. Normally that would have been 1,200 or something. That’s down to the community and the churches, which most food banks are run out of. 

The churches are full of food at the moment. There are stacks and stacks of food, like a warehouse. We get pallet-loads of deliveries of food now because people have been giving money to the food bank. We’ve even had firemen moving food around for us because the volumes are so big. It’s amazing how people pull together. 

At a time when most incomes are going down, the amount of food and money we were given went up. It could so easily have gone the other way. It’s incredible to see that people are looking out for other people who they haven’t even met.

I love London, there’s a really great community. This has shown people’s desire to help – volunteering when lots of people don’t want to be going out. They’re exposing themselves more, and it’s risky, but they’re doing it because they want to help other people. 

Over two months I’ve done about a thousand phone calls. In an average week we deliver up to 120-130 parcels to people, so it’s roughly 20-25 phone calls a day and masses more emails. The phone calls could just be three minutes if they don’t need support from us and are just waiting for their Universal Credit to come through. Other times people really need to talk and it’s 25 minutes or more. It’s a real privilege to have them open up to me.

Hopefully we’ll be able to meet people face to face again. On the phone, you do miss some non-verbal cues. I’m more used to it now and I probably ask better questions than I did a few weeks ago. I’d prefer face to face but it’s the best we can do at the moment. 

Read more from this series:

View from the Frontline: the firefighter delivering PPE.

View from the Frontline: the Covid ward nurse.

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