The volunteers at Hillingdon Crisis Support Service in north-west London did not get much sleep over the weekend. The team of 10 have been working around the clock to get a week’s worth of lunches ready for children over half-term.
The widespread anger at the government’s decision to refuse to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with £15 a week in food vouchers during holidays is particularly acute here: many of the families being supported by the centre live in Boris Johnson’s constituency.
“Where is Boris?” asks the food bank manager, Kim Brigdale, 55. “Have you seen any of them in a food bank? Can you see any of them trying to sort out free school meals for the kids?” She points to receipts posted on the fridge for goods that the team of volunteers have bought with their own money. “Where’s the government?”
Though Labour’s attempt to get the government to provide meals for the poorest children – prompted by a campaign by the England footballer Marcus Rashford – was defeated in the Commons last week, local charities and businesses have rallied together and offered to help. Several local councils, including Hillingdon council, announced they would be stepping in to ensure children do not go hungry. But there is widespread frustration that it has come to this.
Over the weekend, Hillingdon Crisis Support Service received a record number of donations following a call for help posted on Facebook by one volunteer, Chloe Cole, who is studying early years education.
The food bank, based in Hairfield ex-servicemen’s club since March, responded to a growing number of families who desperately needed help to feed their children during lockdown. At one stage the centre was supporting about 25 families and a 50-room care home. While demand had decreased since then, it has started to creep up again.
One brown bag contains enough food for five days of lunches for a single child, according to government recommendations: half a loaf of bread; the option of jam, chocolate spread or ham; cheese; 100g pasta with sauce; two packets of biscuits; one jelly spread; two packets of crisps; three types of fruit; and two yoghurts. There is a vegan and gluten-free option. Each bag costs about £4, which one volunteer points out is a fraction of what MPs’ can expense on food a day.
For the centre’s co-founder Joanna Murphy, food poverty is an issue she personally understands. When her partner was unable to work after being involved in an accident, she was forced to go to a food bank to feed her children. She says the experience was so horrible that she left in tears, and vowed to create a welcoming, non-judgmental space for the families that slip through the cracks.
“If we don’t look after each other, these children are not going to be fed, there are going to be parents that feel like they’re failures,” says Murphy. She describes Johnson as the opposite of Robin Hood. “He takes away from the people when he is supposed to work for the people. He is supposed to better this nation.”
In the early afternoon, community champions from Morrisons supermarket respond to the Facebook callout with 30 lunches, which they will deliver every day this week. The team are delighted. “He’s [Johnson] not doing his job for the people. We are doing his job as communities, businesses, and volunteers,” says Murphy.
Throughout the day, families turn up to pick up the free school meal bags, including a 16-year-old who collects lunches for himself and his sibling.
Gemma Pugh, a 26-year-old mother of three, says Murphy and the centre provide an essential service, giving families food as well as blankets, and pillows. She is deeply frustrated by the vote against providing free school meals.
“How much does it cost to give a child a school meal?” she says. “It’s a couple of pound a child and he [Johnson] can’t provide it, but he can provide this high pay for other people, but forget about the children that will be the next generation that is coming up in society. If we don’t provide for them, then what is going to be left in this world?”
In Breightmet, an area of Bolton in Greater Manchester, volunteers at a community outreach group are loading up cars with bags full of ingredients for disadvantaged families to make packed lunches with during half-term.
Set up by Dorothy Foster and Jean Barrass seven years ago, Reach Family Project would usually be helping families in the area with things such as money management skills, after a referral from schools or social services. But the team of five head out to deliver 50 free school meals packs – including bread, cheese, crisps, bananas, pasta and beans – which will help 250 people, off the back of Rashford’s campaign.
“We only made the decision on Friday as a result of the government’s decision [to vote down the extension of free school meals],” says Barrass, 52, a former safeguarding lead at a primary school. “It’s been non-stop this weekend
The effort is being run from the home of a volunteer, Angela Barry, which is situated in the former “red wall” seat of Bolton North East, where Mark Logan is the Conservative MP. Logan voted against Labour’s motion to extend the provision of free school meals.
Barry, 33, says they are trying to stay “unpolitical” about the subject, and that it is “too early to judge if [the government] was right or wrong”.
But Barrass, who struggled financially after being widowed at 37 with two young children, says the decision had made her blood boil. “These are children, these are the future of our generation. [MPs] get everything they want on expenses. Their expenses cover the cost of hundreds and hundreds of meals.”
The government grants that usually fund the group’s work did not cover the cost of the demand received since posting about the free school meals, so Reach has set up a GoFundMe page instead.
But Phil Hart, 59, who became one of the group’s trustees after a 40-year career in banking, says the generosity of the public and local businesses alone “is probably not enough” to feed children throughout school holidays. “It shouldn’t be political. I’ve never gone to bed hungry so why should anybody else. We’re the fourth-richest nation in the world, this shouldn’t be happening.”
Back in Hillingdon, volunteers who voted for Johnson before say they will not do so again. “When it comes to the next election, he’ll be out there asking everybody to put the little cross on the page. Do you think I will? I tell you what, I would vote anything but them.”