The busy Bromley foodbank facing homelessness itself

In a large shed, tucked just a few hundred metres from Bromley’s town centre, a small team of volunteers are working in a blur.

Wearing facemasks and doing their best to keep socially distanced from one another, they make their way around crates stacked up to almost head-height throughout the warehouse, slapping together packs of food aimed at stopping a single soul in the borough going hungry.

It’s been like this since March, when the full force of the coronavirus pandemic struck the United Kingdom – with hundreds in the borough of Bromley among those suddenly left jobless and between the cracks of financial support.

Amanda Stone, the project manager of Bromley Borough Foodbank, tells a typical story of one local family left hungry and desperate after their breadwinner lost his job in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak.

“In this family, the father lost his job at the start of the pandemic,” Amanda told the local democracy reporting service.

“With two kids and a five week wait for Universal Credit, they had nowhere else to go.

“By the time they came to us Mum hadn’t eaten for five days so they could afford to feed their children.”

News Shopper: Volunteer Helen Davis of Bromley packs a kit with seven days worth of meals. Picture: Lachlan LeemingVolunteer Helen Davis of Bromley packs a kit with seven days worth of meals. Picture: Lachlan Leeming

Families and individuals are often worn down by the time they get to the foodbank, Amanda explained – the result of bouncing between other organisations for days or weeks looking for help.

“By the time people come to us they’re quite desperate because they’ve already exhausted every other option,” she explained.

“People don’t want to talk about their stories by the time they get here – often they’ve been taken pillar to post trying to get help.”

“Having someone say ‘we’re here, we’ll help you through this’ is really reassuring after what they’ve been through.”

That family’s story is similar to hundreds of others in Bromley who were suddenly pitched into uncertainty due to the pandemic.

The foodbank served 1,103 customers in March this year – more than double the 452 who used the organisation in the same month last year.

The local story echoes national figures.

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network of which the Bromley branch is part of, experienced its busiest ever period after lockdown was announced on March 23, with 50,000 food parcels issued in the space of a week – almost double its usual volume.

It’s one of many challenges those behind Bromley foodbank have navigated over the last six months since the pandemic hit.

Overnight the non-profit organisation had to close its four distribution centres around the borough, while referral agencies where individuals could get directed to the foodbank also shut up shop during the pandemic.

It saw the foodbank rapidly pivot to a delivery service to reach some of the borough’s most vulnerable.

The hard work of the team involved is a source of pride for Amanda.

“Having to adapt what you’re doing so quickly, I was really proud of the team for what they’ve done during the last few months,” she said.

“We had one chap crying down the line saying thank you…It’s been a massive effort.”

The support of the public was a massive part of it too she said, with more than 66,177 kilograms of food donated to the bank since March.

“The support has been amazing – it’s really encouraging when you know the people in Bromley borough are behind you, they let you us know we weren’t alone,” she said.

“If we put out a message on social media for a specific item, even if there was none on the shelf, they’d find a way to get it to us.”

“We’ve been fortunate – if we do get a second wave now, we know we’ve got stock.”

But despite their incredible work so far, the foodbank’s biggest challenge could be yet to come – with the organisation staring down the barrel of homelessness itself.

Bromley Council, which owns the Civic Centre warehouse the foodbank has operated out of since 2018, has plans for a new medical centre at the site.

They were meant to have vacated in June, but were thankful the local authority extended their lease until Feburary next year.

And despite the assistance of the council, the foodbank are yet to find a new home – an ever-growing pressure that Amanda acknowledges is a continuing stress for the organisation’s 80-plus volunteers and those who rely on them.

“We’re still trying to look for a new warehouse space but we’re finding it very difficult,” she said.

“We’re particularly worried about the winter. With Christmas already our busiest time of year and the potential of a second wave, it’s quite worrying.”

They’re not asking for much, according to Amanda – any “big, safe, secure warehouse” in the borough will do – with anyone with potential leads urged to contact the foodbank.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if we don’t get a new warehouse, to be honest,” she said – a sentiment likely to be shared by the hundreds of residents they support.

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