Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Visiting Purley Food Hub

Last Saturday morning I visited the Purley Food Hub. Ever since Ash Wednesday when we read from Isaiah 58  
...if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
I have been taking an interest in the increasing call on food banks round the country. I wanted to find out for myself how our local food bank operates, and talk with some of the clients who use it.

The Purley Food Hub operates from the back of Purley URC Church, using the entrance porch as a reception area, and one of the side aisles for food storage. I was very impressed with the professional and caring atmosphere, and the dedication of the volunteers who run the Hub. Clients are referred by a number of agencies including social services, doctors and schools which give them a ticket to present when they arrive. This entitles them to 3 day's supply of food - more or less depending on whether they have a family. They let the volunteers know if there is any food they are allergic to or don't like, and then the volunteers pick out a selection of tinned or dried food for them.

I spoke to a number of clients, some of whom had heartbreaking stories. One woman and her son, who suffered from Tourettes Syndrome, had walked from South Norwood. Her partner had recently died and she had simply run out of money for food. Tears were in here eyes as she told me how grateful she was for some practical help and a friendly welcome. Another single father with a baby daughter in a pushchair had walked from South Croydon. He couldn't work because he had to care for his daughter; he'd been given B&B accommodation by the Council but had no money for other food. A young couple had walked from Waddon - he was 16 and she was 18 and pregnant. The boy - not even an adult in legal terms - couldn't work because of disability and they had outstayed their welcome in his parents' house. Another lady's husband had died and she had to move out of her privately rented accommodation because she couldn't afford it. She had a medical condition that meant she was off work, and again had simply run out of money.
Another young guy was too ashamed or embarrassed to speak, so I left him to his own thoughts. During the three-quarters of an hour that I was there I reckon that at least a dozen people were helped. 

In many cases these are people on benefits whose circumstances have recently changed - mostly through illness or bereavement - and the benefit system hasn't caught up with them so they are left literally penniless and without food. In most cases the crisis passes and they are able to pick up their lives again after the help the Food Hub gives them.  But I can't help wondering how in such a rich country as ours, and in the even more prosperous area of outer London, so many people are suffering food poverty like this. Since the Purley Food Hub opened in January 2013 1500 clients have been helped. Yes, there may be a few who take advantage of the system - and the volunteers recognize that and are becoming more skillful in preventing abuse of the system - but most people would not put themselves through the shame of approaching the Hub unless they were really desperate. We almost seem to be going back to the Victoria era of the workhouse and the Poor Laws. 

Most of the food banks in the UK seem to be run by church or other religious groups. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all hold generosity to the poor and needy as a high value. In the Old Testament over and over again God is described as one who loves justice. So it right that the church not only gives practical help to those in need, but asks why they are needy in the first place, and questions the status quo that allows this. 

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