A domestic abuse victim, a refugee child, a terminally ill man: everyone at my foodbank has a story

Often it’s about more than hunger alone. 

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Their faces pass before my eyes day and night without warning. Mostly the children. And sometimes the adults – the really vulnerable ones – who are alone but clearly have few if any of the life skills needed to live a “normal” life without close help.

But mostly the children. The little boy living in temporary accommodation, whose father is caring but also under immense pressure, as he struggles to bring up his boy on his own with no job, no home, no benefits (he was waiting for Universal Credit but didn’t have a bank account), low skills, and no real idea about the emotional needs of this young boy. I’ll never forget how happy (but in such a sad kind of a way) this boy looked when he found someone else’s hand-me-down Playmobil figure in our toy box. I’ll never forget how he would watch me closely whilst I chatted with his dad – only to look away quickly whenever I turned my focus to him. 

The physical scars told their own story, but it was the young refugee girl’s eyes that scared me. Telling a story I didn’t want to hear, of things seen and experienced far beyond my understanding. To my shame, and even my horror, and certainly my regret, I did not respond well to the trauma I could see. She pointed to some empty Play-Doh tubs and indicated that she wanted some (it remains a mystery who donated empty Play-Doh tubs to a foodbank). I shifted, apologised and tried to distract. Later, having already disappointed her, I looked away when she looked at me with her dark eyes and asked me for things I couldn’t give her. In my defence, the foodbank was busy. It felt like I was being pulled in every direction from the place I really needed to be – in my office reading a funding contract. I resolved to try and be “present” for every person who walked into the foodbank, putting both the contract and my own feelings to the back of my mind until the end of the day.

You see, like any charity, there’s all the usual, and very real needs that are always present when you run a foodbank. You’ll have heard about the need for food (which is ever present, by the way, so please keep giving). You may even have realised that, as an independent charity, we also have to run much like a “proper” business, with all that entails. But at the end of the day, what really matters are the people. The precious and unique individuals who arrive at our doors at a time of crisis, whether newborn or “of a certain age”. They matter, whatever their need, whatever their condition, whether they are charming and friendly or even remote and, well, less friendly. The woman sold as a slave and trafficked into London. The old man institutionalised after a lifetime served in prison. None of them should be going hungry. None of them should be in my foodbanks. And I shouldn’t be here, writing this, to try and explain why foodbanks not only exist but are also set to get even busier.

Put the holiday clubs, cooking and budgeting courses, community meals and drop-ins, job clubs and professional advice services aside: the most important thing we do, apart from “feed people”, is listen. It’s in the listening that the stories come out – which is when we can start to uncover some of the underlying reasons that have led to a foodbank referral. 

Take the older woman who had been severely affected by a stroke. It turned out her son had been beating her up – and then stealing her money. Or the young woman who eventually confessed that she was a victim of domestic violence. She was hungry and at the foodbank because he controlled what and when she was allowed to eat. Or the man just diagnosed with a terminal illness, who was lonely, afraid, and hungry. He now feels “human again”. Or the mum who happily reported that she and her children loved our holiday clubs not just because of the fun and games – but because the family got to eat two meals on the days we were open. 

I’ll put it bluntly. We need you. Please help, and then help some more. And keep on helping. Spread the word. Fill the trolley the next time someone asks you to buy one tin. Put the cost of your morning coffee in the money bucket someone rattles in your face. In fact, put a fiver in, the cost of two coffees. Write to your MP and ask him or her: why? And how? And what are you going to do about hunger? 

It is a disgrace that so many people need foodbanks to survive. It is a disgrace that the benefits system (don’t get me started on Universal Credit) is failing and designed and administered by government officials who simply haven’t got a clue and aren’t listening to people. It’s time for us to say: “No, this isn’t good enough”.

Daphine Aikens is the manager of the Hammersmith & Fulham Foodbank.