Just moments from Northcote Road in Battersea, a road laden with million-pound properties, chain restaurants and new parents with expensive pushchairs, a green sign outside a church reads 'Foodbank open'. Life couldn't be more different for those visiting St Mark's. A crisp winter morning, the people walking through these doors are worn down from the pressure of bills and debts stacking up. They're hungry and tired. Clutching vouchers for an emergency parcel that'll last them a few days, they're at their most desperate.
Food banks offer a lifeline to thousands of people across the UK. Between April and September, the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest food bank network, handed out 586,907 emergency boxes, up 13% on the same period the year before. The controversial rollout of Universal Credit has added pressure to an already headache situation, resulting in a 30% hike in food banks in the six months after it launched.
Sat in the corner of the room, fingers wrapped around a cup of tea made by the volunteers, Sarah Williams*, 22, looks fragile and nervous, despite the food bank workers' warmness and reassurances. It's her first time at a food bank. She's also new to the area; Williams recently moved to a nearby women's hostel after experiencing domestic abuse from her partner. “I'm struggling to get back into work,” she says, quietly. “I was put on ESA [Employment and Support Allowance] and it's taken a while to come through...I've been struggling for ages. My key worker told me that there was a church I could go to [to get food].” The volunteers have stocked her up with an emergency supply containing tins of chopped tomatoes, pasta and cereal – all donated by the public. I ask her about her eating habits. “I regularly skip meals,” she admits, looking at her knees. It's something that all of the women I speak to admit to. “But this will keep me going for a week,” she says, touching the bags by her side.
Problems with benefit payments seem to be a recurring reason why people are forced to resort to the food bank. A single mum with four children to provide for, Winnie Herbert*, 51, is no stranger to a food bank. She says she's visited one about four times in the past year. She's candid – and frustrated – about why food banks are reporting an increase in users. “A lot of people are coming here because of [problems] with their housing benefit. When you change [from one benefit to the other] or stop working, they can take about four to five weeks to sort the claim, so the rent is just building and building.”
Unlike Williams, Herbert has no qualms about using a food bank. “It's circumstances. A lot of people feel embarrassed but I have children to feed. Sometimes I'll go without meals, but they don't go without. That would never happen.” But times are tough. “I'm struggling to get by. I just have £70 [in benefits every week]. It isn't much.”
Fresh-faced and with her thick black hair tied up, Zayna Bibi, 47, could easily pass for 15 years younger. A single mum out of work due to health reasons, and with three sons aged 21, 17 and 13 living with her, Bibi has been forced to visit the food bank several times in the past year.
Sat next to three bulging bags of shopping packed by volunteers, Bibi tells me she was advised to visit the food bank by a Citizens Advice worker after she admitted to struggling with spiralling debt, which she says is a knock-on from problems with benefit payments. “I'm struggling with the amount but my advice worker is advising me of what to do,” she tells me. “While [the amount of] benefits are still the same, everything else like gas and electricity is going up. My boys don't understand the situation.” She admits to regularly skipping meals, and when I push her, she reveals she eats just once a day. “Sometimes my kids tell me to eat something.”
People are genuinely hungry and have no food in the house when they come, says Dan Frith, Wandsworth food bank manager. But they've noted a rise in food bank users who are not on benefits. “We're seeing people come in who are in work,” says Frith. “We've had carers who are on zero hour contracts come in, some cleaners. Somewhere like Wandsworth, there isn't enough social housing so the cost of living is extremely high.”
I also spoke over the phone to Ellie Chatsworth, 29, a single mum to a 6-month-old baby, who visited food banks several times during the summer when she was waiting for child tax credits payments to come through. “I was completely broke,” says Chatsworth, who left an abusive relationship when she was pregnant. “I'd just moved house so there were a lot of costs; there were bills to pay and I needed to furnish it, food was last on the list.” She says visiting the food bank and seeing people relying on it, many who are elderly or with young family, left her feeling depressed about the state of the country. “The current benefits system is the main culprit behind food banks. It's the most vulnerable who have to use the benefits system. Some are waiting for four to five months for benefits to come though.”
In a back room, volunteers are arranging shelves of goods generously donated by the public. There's everything from tampons and toilet rolls to tinned fruit and veg, and even advent calendars brought in to bring cheer to households living on the breadline. As Christmas approaches, the Trussell Trust is concerned about the plight of its users.
“Everyone has a part to play to stop hunger in the UK but our evidence suggests that if the benefits system were changed, less people would find themselves in crisis,” says Trussell Trust senior policy officer Abby Jitendra. “We’re asking for action on waiting times, debt repayment plans, and poor administration.” Jitendra is solemn about what's ahead for many of those living in poverty this winter. “Without urgent action from policy-makers and even more generous practical support from the public, we don’t know how food banks are going to stop families and children going hungry this Christmas.”
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees' identity