Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, food poverty in this country has skyrocketed.
One of the most visible and disturbing signs of this has been the incredible rise in the number of people using food banks – from 41,000 in 2010 to 1.9 million last year.
Coronavirus has added a vicious new twist to this story of inequality, prompted by the economic blow of lockdown, but made much worse by inadequate Government support.
Since the pandemic began in March, the Trussell Trust has observed a 61 per cent increase in the number of food parcels being handed out.
Startlingly, around half of the families requiring support had never attended a food bank before the pandemic began.
At the Whitefoot & Downham community food project, which I helped found in 2013 and where I remain a patron, the number of people in need of help has more than quadrupled. Often the demand is so high that a queue stretches from Hope Church, where the project is based, all the way down Whitefoot Lane.
Food banks rely heavily on retirees to provide the administrative support necessary to keep them functioning. But with many older people shielding, lots of organisations have struggled to find enough volunteers to meet the increased demand. Like many London boroughs, Lewisham has suffered badly during the pandemic.
Food poverty here was already at unacceptable levels, with close to 20,000 parents skipping meals so their children could eat, and 6,000 Lewisham children regularly going to bed hungry.
The kindness of others is a blessing, but having to rely on it to provide for your children can be a humiliating experience for parents.
While coronavirus has caused incredible suffering, I have also been touched by the remarkable displays of community spirit that it has produced.
This spirit has been embodied by organisations from across Lewisham – from Lewisham Local, which has been amazing throughout the pandemic, to the Good Food Project in Catford and Gail’s Bakery in Blackheath.
Sujan and Bandana Katuwal, who run the Panas Gurkha restaurant in Lee High Road, have generously given out hundreds of meals to “local heroes”.
Mutual aid projects have popped up like mushrooms; and just this week I heard of another new initiative, a soup kitchen organised out of the Lewisham Islamic Centre by Councillor Tauseef Anwar – proof that solidarity flourishes in hard times. And while the provision of £63 million in grant funding to the Trussell Trust was a welcome lifeline, in a perverse way the Government also benefits from the proliferation of food banks.
The more numerous they are, the more ordinary they become. There is a danger that when we emerge from this pandemic, food banks will have ceased to be a moral outrage, and while we should all be grateful for our local food bank, we should also plan for the day when it is no longer needed.
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