Greenwich food bank manager tells APPG: No-one at job centre understands the system

Greenwich food bank manager tells APPG: No-one at job centre understands the system
Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson, who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Hunger and Food Poverty
Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson, who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Hunger and Food Poverty

The manager of  the Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been particularly busy recently. Not only is food bank use up by a very worrying 500% in Lewisham and Greenwich, but last week he was called to  a Westminster evidence session of  the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. This APPG  is proactively investigating the underlying causes of hunger, food poverty and the huge increase in demand for food banks across Britain. The group was established by MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, and he is co-chair, alongside the Bishop of Truro Frank Thornton.

The inquiry was launched in April this year at Lambeth Palace, with the aim of posing a series of key questions to each of the political parties in the lead up to the next general election about how they will respond to the rising demand for food aid in this country. Mr Field brought evidence to that first formal session about how some of the conventional trends in households’ ability to cover the cost of living had been “shattered over the past decade – with the proportion of household incomes needed to cover the combined costs of housing, fuel and food increasing since 2003”.

The terms of reference include understanding the extent and geographical spread of hunger and food poverty in this country, its causes, and investigating the source of emergency food assistance providers’  supplies. Some of the other terms of reference include the effectiveness of emergency food assistance in meeting immediate and long-term needs , and the possibility of these schemes becoming permanent features of the welfare state. The full terms of reference  list is here. The inquiry will also make recommendations, and a report is expected in the autumn. You can follow the work of  the inquiry by visiting www.foodpovertyinquiry.org

Alan was one of the people called to a closed hearing evidence session in Parliament last week. The inquiry has already held regional evidence sessions in Birkenhead, Salisbury, Cornwall and South Shields. Alan reported back to me on what he said at the session. He had written to the inquiry, telling Mr Field about the Trussell Trust food bank in Greenwich. He described the vast growth in numbers which he attributes to the welfare changes which began in April 2013, including the welfare cap and the bedroom tax .

He said: “The inquiry already had a good understanding of  some of the issues, and they asked me to clarify some of the issues I’d written about. There are problems at the job centre (one of the places that can refer people to the food bank for help). No-one understands how the system works – not even the people who work there. Then they don’t apply the system consistently. The job centre is a daunting place to visit. The government makes the rules and then doesn’t tell everyone what they are. The job centre loses documentation – but then that loss becomes your problem as a client. It’s the attitude of ‘none of these problems are our problems, even if we’ve caused it’  that comes with it. Lost documentation is a key example.”

The inquiry heard of the cafe-style approach at the Greenwich food bank, where people can be helped in a compassionate, caring way. This led to a discussion with the inquiry panel about whether state institutions can be compassionate. “It’s not a quality you would nowadays attach to state institutions – to be compassionate and show empathy. To do that you have to listen. People tell us ‘it’s no good telling them anything – they don’t listen’.”

Alan told the inquiry that a number of clients “don’t have the capacity to advocate their own position”. A representative of  the East London based Tower Hamlets food bank was also giving evidence at the session, and “what came out in both of our evidence is there’s a section of clients who need someone to provide advocacy”. Alan told how he hears people’s stories, “and contacts the agency or department concerned and often gets results – if Greenwich food bank is calling up the job centre then that has a greater impact”. The panel then went on to discuss whose role it is in society to provide that service.

Someone needs to be doing this vital advocacy work, says Alan. “If you took away the need for me to provide food, then I would be quite happy to do it.”

Advocacy seems to be the missing link in many lives. Vulnerable individuals who get the right timely support may be able to avoid hitting crisis and needing an emergency supply of food – in the same way that someone with a chronic illness may avoid a costly hospital intervention with the right specialist support in the community. A professional advocate  – a housing support worker, a community psychiatric nurse, a social worker or a Trussell Trust manager freed up from the need to source and provide emergency food could very often help to get someone’s benefits sorted at tribunal or get a sanction lifted. But how many professionals are left with the time to do this work?

There’s a growing group of vulnerable people in the UK who are losing their way in a fast-changing and complex welfare system that seems designed to confuse. Fewer and fewer people are being paid and trained to help them. The result? In Greenwich, visitors to Trussell Trust food banks increased from 776 to 5,025 in the past year, while the figure rose from 623 to 3,895 in Lewisham borough.

Having reported from the Greenwich food banks for nearly a year now, I’ll be submitting some evidence this week to the inquiry team – based on some of  the individual interviews I’ve carried out with clients. The deadline for submitting evidence has officially passed, , but you can still email submissions to Andrew Forsey, joint secretary to the inquiry team on andrew.forsey@parliament.uk

If you are able to structure your evidence according to the terms of reference, this will help the inquiry team to analyse the large amount of evidence it hopes to receive.

Alan has written to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith on Twitter, inviting him to visit the food bank. He hasn’t received a reply yet. London Assembly member Len Duvall has also called on London Mayor Boris Johnson to pay the Greenwich food banks a visit.

 

 

 

 

Maeve: The food bank volunteer

Maeve: The food bank volunteer

 

Maeve Adams, a committed warehouse volunteer at Greenwich food bank
Maeve Adams, a committed warehouse volunteer at Greenwich food bank

While the focus of this blog has been on the personal stories of food bank clients, I thought I’d mention what goes on behind the scenes, and try to find out what makes the Trussell Trust food banks here in Greenwich run so smoothly. I’m also going to try to find out why people want to help out as volunteers.

Greenwich food bank currently runs seven food banks throughout the borough. Thanks to the continuing support of the Royal Borough of Greenwich – and its partner organisation Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Greenwich food bank opened two new public donation points earlier this year at the Arches Leisure Centre in Trafalgar Road, Greenwich and at Charlton House in Charlton. This meant that people living in the west of the borough could donate more easily. There are already donation points in Woolwich and Eltham  Centres, Greenwich Community College, Tesco Extra and Sainsbury’s in Eltham.

The food bank’s network of churches across the borough also provides collection points, and many of the schools in the borough also donate, particularly around Harvest Festival time. The amount of food donated seems to be on the increase, as awareness grows about the need for food banks.

A small but committed army – the vast majority of them volunteers – keeps the show on the road. In Greenwich borough there is one central food bank warehouse, where food is sorted by volunteers according to type and its ‘best before’ date. They also check it is undamaged, then pack it into boxes and store it, ready for use. Food is then taken to foodbank centres by van, where it’s made up into food parcels ready for use.

The Greenwich food bank operation is thriving in no small part because of its volunteers of all ages and background. Many of them are drawn from local churches. Some are secondary-aged children helping out for an hour or two as some form of local community activity. A number of volunteers work ‘front of house’ – greeting clients who bring in food vouchers issued by frontline professionals such as social workers, GPs and Citizens Advice Bureau staff. If facilities are available – as is the case in Eltham – they’ll get a cup of tea and the chance of some emotional support as well as an emergency food supply. A lot of ‘signposting’ can get done at this point, if clients can spare the time and energy to talk. The volunteers I see are great at engaging with the people who come in,. They try their best to offer useful help, or whatever it is that someone needs most that day.

Some clients just want a person they can talk to who will actually take their minds off the harsh realities of the ghastly situation they’re in.  Sometimes they don’t want ‘solutions’. They might want help with a crossword rather than analysis of the likely outcome of their application for employment and support allowance.

The people I’ve seen are instinctively good at knowing what clients really need. Yes, they need food on the table, but more than that they want to be valued for who they are. Many of the clients end up wanting to volunteer at the food bank themselves.

Maeve Adams, a lovely lady with a grown-up daughter, is long-standing volunteer in the Eltham warehouse. She doesn’t meet clients, as her role is to sort out the donations as they’re received. She’s very committed indeed, and has been helping here for over a year. She dedicates a couple of hours each Wednesday and Friday. Why does she spend so much of her free time volunteering? ‘The first time I heard about food banks was on the news. I didn’t realise there was still a need for food banks. I’m not naive, but I didn’t realise they still existed. That was a shock. I really enjoy helping out here.’

She does have religious convictions – she’s a Catholic – and for her it’s about wanting to give something back to the community. ‘We’ve all got our own individual ways to feel wanted and needed, and for me I feel that I’ve got that balance. There are people worse off than me. The people here volunteer for different reasons. There are different age groups, but everyone here has the same intentions, so it’s easy to blend in. We want to do something good.’