With its elegant late Victorian red brick terraced houses and a fleet of Range Rovers, Porsches and BMWs parked outside, Studdridge Street is the epitome of leafy west London affluence. A house in this road sold for more than £3.6m four months ago, which makes it one of the priciest streets in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. This is the heart of well-heeled Sloane Ranger territory, and a stone’s throw away is the Hurlingham Club, one of Britain’s most exclusive private members’ clubs famous for its croquet lawns and glitzy balls.
So, all in all, it’s probably not the sort of place you would expect to find a food bank. Yet here we are at ChristChurch Fulham on Studdridge Street, Parsons Green, and the food bank that sets up its stall in a room here every Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon seems to be doing brisk business (though this is apparently nothing compared with how busy it was before Christmas).
However, while there are certainly plenty of takers for the tinned food and dried goods being handed out by volunteers – plus a hot drink, slice of cake and a chat for those who want it – arguably the person most rushed off his feet is the chap sitting behind a desk in a screened-off corner of the room. This is Kiril Moskovchuk, a Citizens Advice adviser who is specifically funded by the local council to provide financial help and debt advice to users of this food bank.
As the morning goes on a steady stream of people enter Moskovchuk’s “office” for a chat. It might be about the fact their benefit payments have been delayed or stopped altogether, or whether they’re claiming the correct benefits. Or it may be a problem with their housing or, if it is a debt issue, how they can negotiate with their creditors.
One of those seeking help is Paul, 61, who has been coming here for several months for help with a complex set of problems relating to his housing and the local social services department. He shares a council flat with his disabled ex-partner and two children, one of whom is also registered disabled.
Paul says it has been “fantastic” to be able to speak to someone at the food bank about his problems, and adds that while there are still a few hurdles ahead of him his situation is “a million times better than it was before”. He says: “Looking at what [Moskovchuk] has to do, they could do with having about four people here – and he could do with a secretary.”
Another food bank client full of praise for the financial help service is mother-of-four Jennifer Vallance, 34, who had a challenging Christmas because she’s had to wait several weeks for her first payment under the new universal credit regime (see below). “It’s good to have someone professional that can help – the ladies here only know so much [about money and finance].”
She says that seeking help about an issue such as benefits can sometimes involve a lot of queueing and waiting. “Here you can come in and you’re made to feel at ease and relaxed. Everyone’s here for the same reason – we’ve all got money problems. It helps to be able to speak to someone in that mindset and environment.”
Bolting money advice on to an emergency food provision service might seem like an odd concept, but it’s an approach that is helping to turn lives around. The Hammersmith and Fulham food bank is one of eight that took part in a pilot scheme last year to test the idea of allowing those who are going hungry to connect with free financial and debt advice “at the point of crisis”.
The pilot was launched by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that operates 420 food banks around the UK, and was predominantly funded by a £100,000 donation from Martin Lewis, the personal finance journalist who set up the MoneySavingExpert website (see below).
The eight food banks partnered with debt and money management charities on the scheme, which has been judged a big success.
After seeing the pilot results Lewis decided to donate a further £500,000, which will allow the Trussell Trust to roll out the financial advice programme to 40 food banks across the UK. The hope is that all of them will be up and running by July, and that 4,000 food bank users will receive some form of financial help and support via the scheme this year, rising to 7,500 in 2017.
David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, says the pilot provided vital help to some of its most vulnerable clients. “People struggling with housing payments, redundancy or illness while on a low income were helped by advisers to have the confidence to tackle their finances and turn their lives around.”
At one of the food banks, after two months 90% of the clients receiving advice had either resolved their issues or were close to doing so.
As well as helping with problems relating to benefit payments and housing, the advisers assisted people with managing their money and dealing with their debts. In the future a variety of types of assistance will be offered. McAuley says: “We’re calling it ‘money help’. In some places it won’t be financial advice – it will be budgeting skills.” That might mean showing people how to use switching websites, as some of those in financial difficulty are on particularly poor-value energy and mobile phone tariffs.
One of the benefits of this way of providing financial help is that it means those in the greatest need are able to see someone instantly and at the same location each time, instead of having to travel and then perhaps wait weeks for a face-to-face appointment. People see the service as part of the food bank and are more open to disclosing all the information the adviser will need.
The ultimate idea is that by dealing with underlying financial issues you will reduce the number of people needing an emergency food handout. And the latest statistics are fairly shocking: in 2014-15 Trussell Trust food banks distributed enough food to feed 1,084,604 people (including 397,997 children) for three days, though some of these clients will have received more than one handout during the 12-month period.
Back at the Studdridge Street food bank, Kiril says the three main topics that people talk to him about are benefits, debt and housing. He has been here twice a week since June 2015 – he also does a weekly session at St Simon’s church in Shepherds Bush when the food bank is there on Thursday afternoons – and in some respects is almost a victim of the scheme’s success – he admits he “could do with some help”, while Daphine Aikens, the manager of the food bank, says: “We are seeking funding for a second person because Kiril’s so busy. We desperately need another person – a debt specialist.”
The constant flow of people coming in and out of this dingy but welcoming room testifies to the fact that this is a much needed and well used resource, but there is something undeniably odd about having a food bank slap bang in the middle of a “millionaire’s row”. I can’t help wondering what the neighbours must think. Instead I ask one of those who has come here for help about the fact that this appears to be a very wealthy area. “It is – you kind of feel you’ve got to put your head down when you walk out of here,” she says quietly. Like many of the clients she has travelled from one of the less affluent parts of the borough.
Of course, London is a place where extreme wealth is often cheek by jowl with extreme poverty. In terms of its housing market Hammersmith and Fulham is one of London’s more expensive boroughs: the average property price here is nudging £800,000, according to the most recent Land Registry data. And while this neighbourhood is replete with pricey delis, trendy boutiques and organic coffee shops, deprivation levels in Hammersmith and Fulham are officially “higher than average”, with almost 7,600 children living in poverty, according to a Public Health England document published in June 2015. But it’s not just kids: in 2015 this borough was officially ranked the 17th most deprived district in England (out of 300-plus) when it comes to income deprivation among older people.
Paul is in no doubt about the value that this financial assistance service offers: “It’s definitely a help – one million per cent. It’s like you’re running around inside this tin can trying to find the door. Kiril’s the chap who opens the door and tells you which way to go.”
Forced into debt by universal credit delays
A report published in November warned that flaws in the universal credit benefit system that is being rolled out are leaving vulnerable people in debt and dependent on food banks. Jennifer Vallance could have been a case study, as that is exactly what has happened to her.
The 34-year-old, who lives with her partner and four children in a two-bedroom flat, has been a regular visitor to the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank over the past few weeks after the switch to universal credit left them high and dry financially. As well as food she has received clothes, hot water bottles and hand warmers. “I’ve had to borrow from people in the past few weeks. I also had to put my mobile phone into a Cash Converters-type shop.” Christmas, she says, was tough: “Thank God for the pound shops and Primark!”
Universal credit rolls six benefits and tax credits (including housing benefit, the child and working tax credit, and income-based jobseeker’s allowance) into one monthly payment. Vallance appears to be a victim of what the November report, issued by a group of Citizens Advice offices, said was a built-in delay which requires claimants to wait 42 days or more before receiving a payment.
“When you apply for universal credit they stop everything. I made the claim on 7 December and as of 19 December everything was stopped,” Vallance says, who spoke to Guardian Money 48 hours before her first payment was due.
Vallance lives about two miles from the food bank. She worked for a time as a chef at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and also at other locations including a restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush, and is a certified barista. However, she says she has been “forced out of work”.“My partner isn’t well enough to work,” she adds. Asked to describe her current financial circumstances, she replies: “Below poverty.”
Vallance says that on one of her earlier visits to the food bank she was advised to see the in-house Citizens Advice adviser.
“He was brilliant, he was really helpful – though in my case I was already getting the help that he could offer.” She firmly supports the idea of having someone in the food bank who can assist with financial, debt and benefit problems: “You definitely need someone here. It would be good to have a woman [as well] – if I brought my mum here I’m not sure whether she would talk to a man.”
Vallance says she is taking things one day at a time. “If the past couple of weeks have shown me anything, it’s to not think ahead because it can all come crashing down.”
The man helping to fund the scheme
He has donated millions to charity since selling his MoneySavingExpert website to Moneysupermarket.com in 2012. But Martin Lewis says that in some ways the donation he is “most unhappy” about is the £600,000 he has given to food bank charity the Trussell Trust.
“It is of course a disgrace in our society that so many people have to go to food banks. But it’s an even bigger disgrace if they have to go twice,” says Lewis, who originally gave the charity £100,000 to fund a pilot scheme to test the idea of providing financial help to food bank clients, and has donated a further £500,000 to finance a wider rollout. “We shouldn’t have food banks in our society – or not to the extent we do. You have to question where the divide between the third sector and the state should be.”
The scheme is aimed at addressing some of the underlying causes of food poverty by helping people manage their finances and household budgets, avoid payday lenders and structure their debt in order to prevent their situation from getting worse and to help them break out of this crisis.
Lewis says those who go to food banks are already open to asking for help, “which means they’re open to help on other things”. The theory is that if debt experts are able to intervene and help get people’s financial lives back on track, this will cut the number of return visits. On average, people come to a Trussell Trust food bank 1.7 times a year; the charity is trying to reduce that to 1.3 or 1.2.
“Money affects every element of your life,” says Lewis. “It doesn’t make you happy, but money problems certainly make you sad and cause stress.”
He, of course, made a great deal of money when he sold his website in June 2012 for £60m in cash and shares. Last October he received a further £19.2m that had been dependent on targets being met. At the time of the sale Lewis announced a £10m charity fund, with £1m immediately going to Citizens Advice. But last November he revealed that while individual charities and the fund had so far received £11m, there was “a lot more left” as a chunk of the original donation was in Moneysupermarket shares, which shot up.
So how would he feel about being described as a philanthropist? “That’s not something you ever call yourself – it’s something other people call you. I wouldn’t make the claim myself.”
And his next big project? Setting up a “mental health and debt policy institute” that would be charged with coming up with innovative solutions for the prevention (rather than cure) of mental health issues causing debt problems, and vice versa.
Food for thought – facts and figures
• Food banks typically provide a minimum of three days’ supply of tinned and dried foods that have been donated by the local community.
• What’s in a food parcel? Typically it includes cereal, soup, pasta, rice, pasta sauce, beans, tinned meat, tinned vegetables, tea/coffee, sugar and biscuits, says the Trussell Trust, the charity that operates the UK’s biggest food bank network. So no fresh fruit and veg, and some people might be concerned about the amount of added sugar and salt. However, some food banks are able to provide fresh food.
• If you are organising a collection for your local food bank, check first to see which items it wants. For example, the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank has put a call-out for items including long-life juice, long-life milk and tinned rice pudding, but currently has a “plentiful supply” of baked beans, tinned tomatoes and tea bags.
• Some food banks distribute other items such as toilet rolls and hot water bottles. Many are becoming more like community hubs, providing emergency food and support. Often they offer hot drinks or meals, plus the opportunity to have a chat with a volunteer. The Trussell Trust has trained some of its food banks to run basic cookery, nutrition and budget management courses. And last October, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced that as part of a trial, job advisers were being posted in a food bank and were giving advice on claiming benefits and finding work.
• The three main reasons people are referred to food banks are said to be 1) benefit delays, 2) low income, and 3) benefit changes.
• Everyone who comes to a food bank is referred by a frontline professional or agency, says the trust. “Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors, schools and social workers identify people in crisis and issue them with a food bank voucher. This entitles them to receive a food bank parcel.”
• Last October, a report from the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty recommended that rather than expand the role of food banks, government policy should be directed at phasing them out by 2020. It said charitable food provision was only able to address the need for food during a crisis, not the origins of that crisis, adding: “Those working in food banks are responding to a need from hungry people. But to accept food banks as part of the solution … is to ignore the reasons why people are hungry. The aim should be a reduction in acute household food insecurity to the extent that food banks cease to exist. It should be possible to do this by 2020.”
• Alternatively, could the UK go the way of America when it comes to food bank take-up? In the US, the Feeding America organisation is a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 “food pantries” (the local distribution arms) and meal programmes which provides food and help to more than 46 million people each year, including 12 million children and seven million older people. Feeding America provides more than 3bn meals to families facing hunger each year. Meanwhile, more than 850,000 Canadians use a food bank each month, according to Food Banks Canada.
• A Conservative minister, Lord Prior of Brampton, came under fire last November when he said in parliament that it was “a paradox that we have this issue with food banks at a time when obesity is one of the biggest threats to the future. It is a strange situation around the world when we have both a problem of obesity and an issue of nutrition”. In reply, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appeared to criticise the minister’s claims, saying: “Our experience in the Church of England, which is involved in the vast majority of food banks across the country, is that between 35% and 45% of people coming to get support from food banks report that the reason for running out of food is to do with changes to the benefit system and sanctions.”