Foodbank dependency in Hackney surges as residents with low income and benefit delays reach crisis point

Hackney Foodbank

Hackney Foodbank - Credit: Archant

The charity anticipates a spike in foodbank dependency over school holidays – but it’s part of a much bigger picture of poverty in the borough.

An unassuming shelter in the heart of Cherbury Street’s estate provides a vital lifeline for thousands of people in crisis across the borough each year.

Inside the Florence Bennett Centre, shelves are stacked with pulses, soups, bags of rice, and cereals, as well as the toiletries and hygiene products that Hackney Foodbank gives to people who find themselves in desperate need. According to staff at the charity, an unexpected bill or a delay in benefits can send people close to the breadline spiralling into crisis.

The Foodbank expects dependency on its service to spike over the summer months, as children who rely on free school meals will be deprived of a daily square meal over the holidays. With less than three weeks to go, Melanie Rochford, business and development director at the charity, is frantically working to get plans in place for weekday lunchtimes so children don’t go hungry. “We’re looking for a quick pocket of funding to employ someone local to provide lunchtime meals from Monday to Friday at St John’s Church or one of our other centres,” Rochford says.

This anticipated surge forms part of a much bigger picture of poverty. In 2017, the number turning to Hackney Foodbank increased by 24 percent. Of the almost 4,000 people provided with emergency food parcels last year, a quarter were the working poor and over a quarter (28 percent) were children. Data comparing the first quarter of this year against the same period in 2017 shows numbers are continuing to rise - with around 200 more user visits. Low income, benefit changes and benefit delays are the three most cited reasons for needing the foodbank.

“The numbers just go upwards,” Rochford says. “Looking at data from across the years in Hackney, it’s really shot up. Reasons for visiting the food bank are numerous, and it’s never normally just the one. Benefit delays and low income are common causes – and that paints quite a bleak picture. There’s a lot of anxiety from parents using foodbanks who fear their children could be taken away from them if authorities realise how bad things are getting.”

Hackney has one of the highest concentrations of deprivation in the capital with 36 percent of residents living in poverty, according to data from Trust For London. Rochford says there are multiple factors at play that lead people to the foodbank, and her role is increasingly about addressing the underlying issues faced by people in poverty rather than simply providing an emergency stop gap.

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“The continuing austerity measures are definitely not helping, the continuation of zero hours contracts is also a factor. Universal credit is making it really difficult for people with the five week wait. For some, it can be the final straw. And it hasn’t fully rolled out yet in the borough, that won’t happen until October. But we’re already seeing issues. We need to tackle poverty in a broader sense so it’s more strategic rather than just putting a sticking plaster on the food crisis element,” she explains.

Plans include branching out into offering debt advice services so people can seek help when they come to pick up food rather than being signposted elsewhere. “Rather than us reinventing the wheel we’re looking at how we can collaborate,” Rochford says. The charity has also partnered with Opportunity Hub on Pitfield Street which gives CV advice and helps individuals get back into work. It also works with Redbox to make sure local schools have free sanitary products so girls who can’t afford them don’t need to skip classes.

“It can be challenging sometimes, people do come in frustrated because maybe they’ve been shoved from pillar to post and are desperate to get some food. Some of the stories completely break my heart, it leaves you with a very strong energy that drives you to want to change things,” she explains.

“People need to recognise that this is real. The narrative needs to be changed, away from scrounging spongers who just want an easy way of life. I’d like to see more politicians actually sitting down in foodbanks, speaking with people and finding out exactly what their journey in life has been. There’s a lot of humility and it takes a lot of courage for people to come in and reach out for help.”

Rochford says that many of the people donating food are from churches, local entrepreneurs who want to give something back or individuals helping out. Members of the community can get involved by leaving food at supermarket drops, fundraising or volunteering at the foodbank.

She adds: “Volunteers really are the backbone of what we do. There’s a lot of amazing people out there who are volunteering but not necessarily blowing their trumpet about it – they just do what they believe is the right thing for their fellow human.”

An anonymous Hackney Foodbank service user tells the Gazette: “I first ended up needing the foodbank after I wasn’t paid my benefits for over a year. It started when they asked for proof that I’m British, I’m from Jamaica and came here as a little boy 50 years ago and I’m a citizen.

“But the reason why there was a problem was because my passport was stolen and from when I was in hospital. I ended up in rental arrears, every household bill went into arrears: water, gas, electric, council tax. I’m paying it off now trying to get back on level terms but the debt is way above me. It’s stressed me so much, I got very depressed through this. Sometimes I can’t sleep, sometimes I wake up in cold sweats. It’s a good thing there is the foodbank. Without it things would be really hard. I appreciate things like this, like lots of people do.”

Anyone who wants to help by donating, fundraising or volunteering can contact