The Edinburgh neighbours connected by a food bank
On Leamington Terrace in Bruntsfield there are packages on the doorsteps. But this isn’t a shopping spree. Residents of Leamington Terrace have organised a weekly collection for their local food bank. Every Friday just after 9am Howard Moody, Mick Patrick and a friend take a wheelbarrow each and collect up the donations and deliver them to the church on the corner.
“We knew that the food banks, well you could see on television, were emptying quickly” says Howard. “If everyone put out one tin a week we would have a really substantial collection.” He donates tinned fish. He eats it himself on toast “for lunch or a quick snack, and it’s very good.” Most donations are tinned because its easy to store and transport and crucially, the seagulls can’t get into it. A seagull, Howard learnt the hard way, can rip open a packet and before you know it there’s “pasta all down the steps.”
Howard’s never met anyone who uses the food bank, but some of them live just across the street.
Rhys, a landscape gardener, also lives on Leamington Terrace, in a B&B the council uses as temporary housing. It’s “a real mix of really different walks of life, there’s people who have been really successful and it’s just one major breakdown in their marriage, or a family breakdown and they’ve lost absolutely everything, and now they’re having to start from scratch.” he says. “It’s brutal, but at the same time it’s like movie quality stories. You’ve got guys that have been millionaires, you’ve got ex-army, decorated soldiers.”
“I didn’t have everything in the world, but my mum committing suicide, for me, that took everything away from me, made me move to another town, made me start again. Just that kind of unpredictable sweep that can really take everything,” he says. He was attacked walking home from the pub one night which damaged his leg, he was out of work for a while after that, he tells me. “It’s just one thing. Just literally one thing and it changes somebody’s life forever.”
Rhys is using the food bank for the second time. He’s surprised to hear his neighbours run a weekly collection for it. “The fact that they’re willing to go into their pockets and help, I think that’s really nice, but it’s surprising.” He’s “hoping to get back on my feet and start my own business.”
As inflation soars have donations fallen?
Not according to Howard. “For those who are giving, they’re giving more” he says. One family on the street have really stepped up. “They have a box and they fill it every week and they’ll have 50 items, cans, biscuits and they fill it to the top.” For Howard, inflation isn’t a concern. “For people of my age who are, mercifully fit and well, this isn’t a difficult time at all. We grew up with rationing books.” So “suddenly falling back into what people called ‘make do and mend’ now has been a doddle” he says.
But not everyone agrees.“The increase in fuel prices has definitely impacted people, they have to put their money into the electricity meter in increasing amounts, so they come and get their food from us because they can’t do both” says Fiona Watson. She’s been volunteering at the food bank for over ten years.
What brings people to the food bank?
“Mental health issues generally feature very highly, there are other things but that will often be a common denominator” says manager Sarah Johnstone.
“Its the delays in the the benefits system. It’s minimum six weeks and there’s just no understanding of how people live for that six weeks until they get their benefits” says Fiona.
“You get a loan, which you then have to pay back, so as soon as you get your benefit you’re in debt. I mean, there’s something very broken about the benefits system, very broken. And you miss an appointment and you’re sanctioned for six weeks. What are you meant to do for that six weeks? We had one client who had a hospital appointment on the day of his appointment at the job centre, showed them and said ‘I’m not going to be able to come, I’m going to be in hospital.’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah that’s fine.’ And come the day, they sanctioned him anyway. You hear horror stories.” Fiona shakes her head. “So they come here, and at least they don’t starve.”
Edinburgh City Mission has been running food banks since 2006. Now they run seven. “From the beginning we were very keen that people had some choice because so many times choice is removed from people’s lives. So from the very beginning we’ve had these shopping lists” says Sarah.
Foodbank users can tick the foods they want, hand their lists in, and sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit until a volunteer brings out their food.
There are all sorts of people here today. Five families with their kids, an MSc student, a Ukrainian grandmother. Chao is here with the youngest food bank user, her son is 21 months old. He’s playing with a tin of baked beans. They started coming when he was three weeks old. She split with her partner before he was born, and with her family overseas, she had nowhere else to turn. Food bank fare is extremely British: baked beans, custard, rice pudding. “Totally different’ from the food she ate growing up. She’s “got used to it” now, she says.
Robert has been using the food bank off and on for about three months. “Normally I work in events, building all the stages doing all this sort of thing. Thats’s what I did at college and at university, but I hurt myself on a building site” he tells me. He lives with chronic pain as a result. “I stayed in temporary accommodation for a while because I split up with my partner and my name wasn’t on the lease.”
Now that events are back he’s keen to get back to work. “As much as I really appreciate that the food banks been really helpful towards me and stuff like that, but I know there’s people out there that are maybe in more in need of it than me – I have been in need of it and stuff – but yeah if I feel that I can maybe support myself a wee bit more than that’s what I’m going to try and do” he says.
Demand for the foodbank has been increasing according to data from Edinburgh City Mission. The highest number of referrals to the Bruntsfield foodbank so far this year have been in April, the month Ofgem raised the price cap, doubling many people’s energy bills.
Edinburgh Council say they are working to reduce the use of temporary accommodation like the B&B in Bruntsfield. Councillor Jane Meagher, the Housing and Homelessness Convener, said: “We only use temporary accommodation where we have to and our aim is always to find everyone a permanent settled home. We face an extremely challenging situation in Edinburgh due to the high number of people who are waiting for permanent social housing. We have one of the most ambitious council house building programmes in the UK to try to tackle this as we only have 14% social housing in the Capital, compared to a national average of 23%, alongside the most expensive private rented sector in Scotland.”
Would the residents of the B&B like to stay in Bruntsfield? They’d have to win the lottery, they said.