Bounds Green Food Bank was born in 2020 when a small group of people concerned with poverty and deprivation within their communities realised the Covid pandemic was so much more than a health emergency. Those who already had very little were finding it even harder to get by.
Three of that original group, Emma, Ishraq and Mary, pictured, are still members of the Food Bank’s overall co-ordinating group and they recently got together to recall those early days, the hurdles and joys, and what the future holds.
Ishraq - ‘At the time, we didn’t really know each other. I grew up in a family which unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to be charitable and I wanted my children to understand what it meant to give. Someone said: “You’re with Palmers Green Mosque, come and join our Enfield Charity Consortium Covid response: what can you do?” So my family and other mosque members started making a dozen or so food parcels every Sunday, part-funded by the mosque which we gave to Bounds Green Mutual Aid to distribute.’
Emma - ‘I came in from Bowes Park Community Association (BPCA) which is a registered charity. We had started community out-reach when the pandemic struck and we put out flyers. Someone very quickly said to me, ‘You need to talk to Mary because Bounds Green Mutual Aid was endeavouring to do the same thing. So we joined forces and our flyers went to 14,000 households.’
Mary - ‘During these early weeks, those of us in the Labour Party in Bounds Green already had a street network for elections so we used that structure to try to help our neighbours. Lots of people couldn’t get to the shops, had lost their jobs and so on and we were able to offer support. As well as those early leaflets, we’d also contacted other community associations in the area. Being with BPCA meant a charitable structure was already in place.’
Emma - ‘In those early weeks, it was obvious that some of our neighbours had no gas or electricity or no benefits and couldn’t do anything about it because everything was closed. BPCA already existed so we would give them £20 or so to keep the lights on or to top-up the phone so they could chase up electricity bills. At the same time, the cash we received from Haringey and the London Community Response funds was very generous so Ishraq said: “Why don’t we start our own food bank?”’
Ishraq - ‘When I asked if they’d thought about one, they replied: “We have but don’t know how to start”. I knew that Walthamstow PL84U Food Bank was very well run so I suggested we spend a day there. I personally had to miss that because I was self-isolating but six or seven others went.’
Emma - ‘When we got back we all said we thought we could start one, but maybe in August? Ishraq said there’s no time like today - let’s start in two weeks.’
Mary - ‘We spent 2-3 hours in Walthamstow talking about how they worked and organised things, so that gave us a bit of a blueprint. A couple of us went to Muswell Hill and the Selby Centre - so we visited three Food Banks in all. We adopted Walthamstow most closely.’
Emma - ‘A big question early on was: “Where are we going to do it”? We wanted it to be in Bounds Green but few places were available to us because of Covid. Then we thought about Shaftesbury Hall near the station which had recently been restored by the Samaritans. They were really happy to help. We would have exclusive use for three months, it was in a great spot and a good size for our beginnings - so we said “Yes’’.’
Ishraq - ‘I remember that “yes”. It was a Sunday evening Zoom call. Someone said we will be having a final look tomorrow so let’s make a decision on the next call the following Sunday. I scratched my head and said: “Let’s get this straight: you’ve found the right premises and you still want to wait six days? Why can’t we have another call tomorrow evening”.’ So we did. Three weeks and one day later we opened the hall to guests.’
Mary - ‘We agreed from the very start what the underlying vision would be. We wanted to bring people together so people in Bounds Green feel they are part of the Food Bank and we came up with the phrase: “We are Community” which challenges the idea that those facing food insecurity are somehow intrinsically different from people who do not. We had a vision document with key points including Mutual Aid - for and by all and equality and respect. We are committed to providing fresh and culturally appropriate food where possible.
Ishraq - ‘For me, a big challenge was sourcing food and up until then I had been winging it. They asked: “What about the food Ishraq?” and I said: “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way.” We had some money so me, Emma and Helen O’Toole went to Morrison’s and had something like 15 trolleys of food.’
Emma - ‘It was a train of trolleys. We paid for that food but we knew we couldn’t sustain the purchases and would have to source donations. That’s still the case today as we only fund 8-10% of everything we give out. There’s no way we’d have the money to buy it all - it had to develop in the way it did.’
Mary - ‘We used the organisation of the local Mutual Aid group to appeal for volunteers. People came forward really, really quickly. We also leafletted to say we were opening and we contacted a lot of local organisations such as GP surgeries and chemists, shops and community groups. We thought maybe we would get 10-20 people coming in: there were 35 on the first day and 70 the next time.’
BANKING THE JOY…
Ishraq - ‘Whatever the up side personally, it’s down to the guests and the dignity we can give them though food distribution or other projects. Luckily, none of us here has had to attend food banks but we have a sense of what it must be like to have to do so. The joy comes from helping others and we have to keep trying from our hearts.’
Mary - ‘I saw a lady come in a few weeks ago looking very distraught so I asked how she was. “I’ve worked all my life but I’ve never been into a food bank before,’ she said. “I’ve got three kids and never thought I’d have to do this.” We helped her choose the food herself.’
Emma - ‘Because we don’t require vouchers, the Food Bank is open to all and that makes it easier for guests to come in through the doors because there’s no judgement. And do remember how scary it was when everything was shut down last year and no-one knew what was happening.’
Mary - ‘It’s been really rewarding for people in the community to come together and understand our underlying ideas around sharing and inclusivity - including encouraging guests who want to volunteer. As a result, we now all know each other better and have made friends and connections within the community. We have developed a much greater understanding of the inequalities and wider social issues that exist here in Bounds Green and Haringey.’
Emma - ‘We’ve been in St Michael’s Hall since September and it’s a much bigger premises so we can do more. One of the services we offer is Advice First Aid, a way of connecting guests with housing or benefit services or other authorities. It’s been going well and now we want to do other things to help people. Not just with their immediate needs but also to alleviate other stresses in their lives. Now that we are comfortable with the food supply and have the volunteers to deliver the service we are in a powerful position to do more, particularly with our strong contacts with Haringey. Our volunteers come up with the ideas - the winter warmers project happened because during the cold spell they saw children coming in with no socks and guests without hats or gloves.’
Ishraq - ‘We can certainly do more with food and we are looking to establish a food hub for redistribution of surplus food beyond our guests. A couple of months ago, when we were serving 600 households per week, we looked at the retail value of the food going out - it was £22k that week. We’d purchased only a fraction of that and it showed the scale of what had been built up. If you add the ‘cost’ of all the voluntary efforts, we’d become a £6m business because of the fantastic team. Now, if we can source more than we need, we can offer it to other Food Banks. We’ve learnt as a team we can help others in this “wholesale” operation. We are part of the Food Network in Haringey, and work closely with each other and with the Council to make sure we are bringing together all our resources to develop and create change. Another idea is offering cooking classes to our guests in partnership with a community cook-up organisation. Too often, guests are just surviving and making quick, healthy food is something they don’t normally have the capacity to do.’
Mary - ‘Now that we are established, we can concentrate more on food security in the context of overall poverty. It’s not just about food insecurity, it’s also financial insecurity because spending on food is flexible but paying the rent isn’t. Then there are the ways we can assist people to access their rights - so they are job ready and better able to look for work. It’s not just about how the Food Bank distributes food. Finally, now that restrictions are being eased, we can have actual meetings! It’s really important that guests and volunteers are able to come together to ensure their voices are heard so that everyone in the community can contribute to the development of the Food Bank.’
Bounds Green Food Bank is open on Tuesdays and Thursday's to all guests. If you'd like to volunteer, click the tab above to register or if you'd like to donate, please click this link.