The financial consequences of the pandemic, especially for unemployment, can be seen in the surge in the number of families that now rely on the help and support of local food banks in London.

I got in touch with Mickey Reedy who works at North Paddington Food Bank in West London. She told me a bit about what her work entails, what changes the food bank has made in response to the pandemic and what everyone can do to help. 

Working in administration and customer support, Mickey’s day to day jobs include data management and being responsible for the scheduling of all deliveries and collections. She also gives support through referrals to relevant support organisations.

“As a former chef, my professional life has been all about food. Over the past 10 years I have become more active in social and environmental justice work centred around the food system, food waste and education. When the pandemic hit, working for the foodbank was a natural next step professionally. I applied after volunteering.”

The work of local food banks is highly valuable to the community, as Mickey explains, “The foodbank is more than a food surplus redistribution organisation. We buy food and have standardised parcels as far as possible. Were we to operate on a purely redistributive basis, we would not be able to provide households with anything close to a balanced diet or provide essentials such as toiletries.”

They provide so much more than just food, “Some workers and volunteers at the foodbank believe this has strengthened their ties with the community in which they live. For some it has helped alleviate isolation. I think for all there have been unique learning experiences.”

When asked about the last year and the impact of the pandemic on numbers at the food bank, Mickey said, “The numbers have risen enormously and at the peak, May 2020, we were serving approximately 700 households, a five fold increase from before the pandemic. Over the last few years numbers had risen and this was seen largely as a result of changes to the benefits system and austerity measures (like the 5 week wait for UC and 2 child limit.) The foodbank is now serving at least double the number of households it was in 2019.”

Understandably, unemployment is a huge concern for families and is the main reason for people seeking help from the food bank. Unemployment in Westminster has risen by 173% since March 2020. The largest group of unemployment claimants (85%) are adults aged 24+, although rates of unemployment have risen most steeply amongst 18-24 year olds. Church Street, Queen's Park and Westbourne have the highest levels of claimants in Westminster. 1 in 4 young people are currently unemployed in these areas. 

This growth in numbers has demanded drastic and efficient changes to how the food bank operates. Mickey told me the food bank has massively expanded, going from collections once a week to a delivery service 6 days a week in the first lockdown. Developing and implementing new administrative systems and establishing a new referral system are some of the ways the food bank has adapted in a short time frame. Initially food sourcing was also problematic due to national shortages. Other considerations like having to manage an increased volunteer pool, ensuring covid safety and of course, managing numbers of people accessing the service so as to keep the numbers sustainable have all made the food bank’s response very impressive.

So, what can we do to help and to get involved? 

Mickey said, “We are always happy to accept donations, financial donations help the most as we bulk buy food and know which stock we need. However, food is also welcome if it is in date and unopened. Members of the community are welcome to volunteer through our website."

Looking forward, "the goal of the foodbank is to alleviate hardship. Ultimately, the charity believes that food aid should not become further entrenched as a social norm.” This will be an important aim for government and society once we get through this pandemic.

Although the numbers are certainly shocking and revealing of the effects of the pandemic, the main message I took away from this interview was that the incredible effort that all the food bank volunteers have made especially over the last year has been rewarding in that it has made such a difference to so many people's lives. It can be seen as one of the huge successes, born out of one of the pandemics most widely impacting consequences.