In July, David Freud, the Conservative peer in charge of changes to the benefit system, wondered aloud in the Lords whether the boom in food banks was ‘supply-led’ or ‘demand-led’. Two years ago, 70,000 people used food banks and now 347,000 do. ‘What is a supply-led food bank?’ another peer wanted to know. Freud wrote the Lex column in the FT before Tony Blair asked him to lead an independent review of the benefits system (he completed a draft in three weeks, despite admitting he ‘didn’t know anything about welfare at all’), so perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. ‘If that sounded like jargon, I apologise,’ Freud replied. ‘I meant that food from a food bank – the supply – is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.’

I wouldn’t call the demand at Kensington and Chelsea Food Bank the Friday I visited ‘infinite’. On the day it opened at the back of St Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Gardens in November 2012, the vicar, Adrian Beavis, wondered if anyone would show up. The congregation at St Luke’s had been collecting tins for the food bank nearest them, in the neighbouring borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, for about six months when they heard that a number of people from their own borough of Kensington and Chelsea were using it. A broom cupboard was cleared, more donations solicited (along with the tins of tomatoes and packs of nappies came caviar, loose-leaf Orange Pekoe tea in a suede pouch with tassels and handbag-sized bars of Green and Blacks chocolate) and the food bank opened. The first user was down to his last £3 and debating whether to spend it on himself or his cat when he heard he could get a voucher from his GP for the food bank. He wasn’t to know that the eccentric donors to the Kensington and Chelsea Food Bank had also given Whiskas.

Ten minutes before the food bank opened on the afternoon I was there, a woman in a dark coat with an orange Sainsbury’s bag appeared at the bottom of the stairs. ‘I’ve come to collect something,’ she said. People turn up at the food bank with an A5 form on bright red paper that has been filled in by someone in authority who knows their situation – doctor, social worker, Citizens’ Advice Bureau adviser, Job Centre adviser – and entitles them to an emergency food ration intended to feed them and their family for three days. It’s not designed to be an infinite good: only three vouchers can be issued per calendar year. It’s unclear what the ‘clients’ are supposed to do if the government spends more than nine days deciding their case. If someone turns up without a voucher, they can have a cup of tea and a rummage in the free items box (‘gourmet foods, exotic foods, dented tins’, the sign says) but they can’t be given a food parcel.

The lady with the Sainsbury’s bag sat down in a low armchair and was given tea and cakes donated by a local café while her parcel was prepared: Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, two tins of Heinz soup, black-eyed beans, Del Monte canned peaches, tinned fish, rice, juice, UHT milk, a silver tin of Nescafé Azera and a packet of biscuits. Three American study-abroad students fetched and carried and packed everything in new Waitrose carrier bags, one bag inside another in case one split on the way home. They brought them over and put them on the floor alongside her Sainsbury’s bag. I wasn’t allowed to speak to her, but I sneaked a look at her voucher, and in the section headed ‘nature of crisis’, ‘benefit delays’ had been ticked. I could see she hadn’t taken off her coat. The students said she’d seemed happy; they’d volunteered in soup kitchens in New York and New Jersey, and were bemused by the food cupboard: ‘So many baked beans.’ Before leaving, the woman was offered a prayer. Something ‘light and brief’, thanking God, asking him to open doors that she might ‘know his love and protection’, Charlotte, the vicar’s wife, told me. Not many refuse, though some ask for their prayer to be dedicated to someone they knew needed it.

Over the past year, the Kensington and Chelsea Food Bank has served 489 people. The most common reason for using it is delays to benefits, followed by changes to benefits. Nationally, the Trussell Trust – the Christian charity behind 350 food banks across the UK, including this one – has found the same thing: 30 per cent come because the state has stopped its support. Charlotte told me that people describe a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’: doctor’s forms are sent but never received; a wife becomes self-employed and benefits are stopped for the duration of the investigation into her earnings; a patient is discharged from hospital, and because his benefits were stopped while he was ill, he now has nothing. Some people have to be coaxed in; they tell the volunteers they’ve worked at a food bank themselves in the past. Lots say they’ll donate to the bank once they’re back on their feet, and some (cat food man, for instance) do. ‘If they had it their own way, they’d go shopping for themselves,’ Tania Stanley, a 21-year-old volunteer on Jobseeker’s Allowance, said. I thought of the Waitrose bags being carried home all over Kensington and Chelsea; no one could tell who had done their shopping at the food bank.

The food store itself was cool and dark. Before it was a broom cupboard, it was a side entrance to the church, and above the white plaster walls, there was a border of black and red bricks in a pattern. The church was designed by the Godwin brothers in 1872-74, when the Gunter family, who’d made their money in confectionery, built houses for architects, doctors, jewellers, widows and spinsters on what had been fields of walnut, mulberry and apple trees. Now the greatest proportion of Kensington and Chelsea’s residents work in finance and insurance. Child poverty, nevertheless, is at 19 per cent. Cawston Press Cloudy Apple Juice, Pampers nappies, Nutella, a great deal of Green Giant tinned sweetcorn, Spam, loo paper and Jaffa Cakes: Kimberley, the food bank co-ordinator, told me that people tend not to donate sweet things and meat. I find a tin of Le Pâté Hénaff – ‘mmm sur les toasts à l’apéro’ – and wonder if it was donated by the French under-vicar who had just invited me to his wine-tasting here next week. But perhaps the donors know what they’re doing. One 65-year-old man told the volunteers he hadn’t been able to afford the loose-leaf tea he adores for 12 years. He was thrilled when Charlotte, who overheard him, snuck to the cupboard and presented him with the tasselled suede pouch. Orange Pekoe! His favourite! Just a shame it wasn’t single estate.

The first Trussell Trust food bank was in a shed in Salisbury – a fancy shed, with a pitched roof and a veranda. Paddy Henderson, the charity’s cofounder, had been fundraising for Bulgarian orphans in 2000 when he received a call from someone in his own town who couldn’t afford to eat. Food banks are extraordinarily new. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the Hungry Forties, Mary Barton, those who are ‘clemming’, or starving, just get used to it. And those who are not can barely imagine it. George Wilson in that novel goes to ask the mill-owner’s help for a friend who’s dying, and waits for his audience in the kitchen as the servants are making breakfast. Wilson hasn’t eaten: ‘If the servants had known this, they would have willingly given him meat and bread in abundance; but they were like the rest of us, and not feeling hunger themselves, forgot it was possible another might.’ Lord Freud ought to read Mary Barton.

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Vol. 35 No. 24 · 19 December 2013

Joanna Biggs is right to ask that Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, read Mary Barton (LRB, 5 December). Since he seems to have a Gradgrindish desire for facts, he might also volunteer to help in a food bank. He would find that he’d be making up food packs of at least two kinds: not non-vegetarian and vegetarian, but food for those who have the means to cook the contents of the packs and those who do not. There is a subset too: those who do not have a can opener and so must have their cans with ring-pulls or keys. He might also like to read the chapter in Bleak House that ends: ‘Dead, your majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.’

Jim Maloney
Appley Bridge, Lancashire

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