Tara Osman was until recently was manager of the North Paddington Foodbank, she has recently co-written and directed the play ‘Foodbank As It Is’ which seeks to raise awareness of foodbank use. She has written about the realities of running a foodbank in the inner city and why she believes the government should be doing more to find out the nature of food insecurity.
This week I had a brief email exchange with a member of staff from an independent food bank located 5 miles down the road from the equally independent food bank where I worked as manager (until a week ago) and now volunteer. What struck me most about this exchange was that in my 2 years of employment there I had never once communicated with anyone from this food bank although we must have been facing very similar dilemmas and challenges. The reason, I suspect, is that staff at independent food banks are very, very busy indeed. As the manager and (for much of my time there) only paid employee of the food bank my days were taken up with anything and everything needed to keep a small charity afloat and emergency food supplies at the ready – from bookkeeping to shifting crates of food around a small office; from supporting volunteers to giving presentations to corporate donors; from writing funding bids to running the increasingly busy weekly food bank session (after which I was sometimes to be found sitting in the office practically panting with fatigue with a very blank expression on my face). The degree of distress and anxiety experienced by our clients sometimes weighed on me very heavily indeed.
And that busy-ness has another effect: it leaves little time for the food bank team to consider and formulate a response to the structural issues underlying the need for emergency food aid and what can be done to address or campaign on these issues. This is a source of deep frustration for many of us working and volunteering in food banks. Yes, at our food bank we dutifully collate our data each week and keep careful anonymised records of how many people present for assistance, who they are, why they need help and where they live, whether someone in the household has a health condition or disability. This is extremely rich and valuable data. But at the moment that data goes as far as local organisations who need information on why we are applying for funding, or the occasional local press report. There is nowhere else for it to go – no collective data base, no press office, certainly nowhere remotely resembling a government department. The people helped by independent food banks are largely invisible statistically. Indeed up until a few months ago we had no idea how many independent food banks were operating up and down the UK. We only know now through the efforts of my friend Sabine Goodwin, who in collaboration with the newly established Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) traced as many independent food banks as she could find (currently 714) – all from her kitchen table. This project was unfunded, as is most of IFAN’s work. We now know that independent food banks make up 36.5% of food banks in the UK, as opposed to the Trussell Trust”s 63.5%.
It was from this deep sense of the invisibility of our clients, their stories and the work of the food bank that I wrote my play “Food Bank As It Is”. To witness the distress, injustice and hardship experienced by our clients and not to talk about it in some way felt wrong, and the play has indeed been one very effective way to bring these stories to light. But there needs to be more, much more: according to the premise that what gets measured gets fixed, there needs to be a quantitative measure of the scale of the problem – either through collating data from all food banks across the UK (a large project which would require funding, staff and the will to make it happen) or, better still, a decision from government to measure food insecurity across the UK and therefore capture the true number of people experiencing food insecurity, undoubtedly a much higher figure. That’s why I, like many of my colleagues, are supporting Emma Lewell-Buck’s 10 minute Rule Bill calling on the government to start measuring food insecurity.
But in the mean time, while we are waiting, I would like to record – and can someone make a note of this – that on my last week as manager of the food bank we helped a record number of 65 households in our 3 hour food bank session. I don’t know how many adults and children that represented, we haven’t had time to count yet. Our youngest client was a new-born baby, our oldest was 85 years of age. We were running out of food by the end of the morning. This was just one independent food bank out of 714. I would like the public to know this.
Tara Osman is the writer and co-director of “Food Bank As It Is” and previously worked at North Paddington Food Bank
Next performance Wednesday 29th November 7pm. The performance will be followed by a Q and A focussing on the 10-minute Rule Bill with a panel including Dr. Rachel Loopstra and Rachel Alcock. You can get tickets here.