The countdown to Christmas is on and social media is quick to remind us how many weeks, days and hours there are until the festivities begin. Christmas wish lists are regularly added to, decorations are upgraded, and luxurious, decadent food items seem to creep into our weekly shops in our haste to create the perfect Christmas. It is not difficult to get lost in the excitement and joy that the season brings, yet for the 1 in 5 people in poverty, it may feel like an unbearable weight that shows just how far you are from this dream of a perfect day.
Surrey is only second to London as the wealthiest place to live, yet the Epsom and Ewell Foodbank is a distinct reminder that there is an increasing and widening wealth gap within the borough. Since opening its doors in 2012, the foodbank has given food to more than 20,000 people in need. The demand has increased over the past few years – half of that number have visited the foodbank since 2017. The numbers have increased by 45% since 2018 – but this isn’t just about statistics. This is about the individuals and families who are in desperate need. It only takes a wrong choice, a delay of benefits or losing a job to lead someone down the path that takes them into poverty.
When I arrived at the Generation Resource Centre in Ewell, it was a hub of activity. Food was quickly sorted into types and dates then swiftly put into containers. There were more volunteers than I could count as well as office staff who all work incredibly hard. Harvest has been generous this year with many donations from local churches and schools. On some boxes, I noticed drawings by children. The pictures were a reminder that the food has all been given with thought and generosity by the local community.
In the midst of the ordered chaos, there was laughter; many of these volunteers have worked here since 2012 and they are a tight-knit group. There was no judgement here, just altruism at its finest. Each of them has heard so many unfortunate stories and they all reserve judgment. I often heard the phrase: “It could happen to anyone of us.” You do not have to begin your life in poverty to become the 1 in 5.
The foodbank is currently undertaking a project looking at society’s link to the cycle of poverty. There are consequences to decisions such as closing local Children’s Centres, who may be the first to notice a family’s need for the foodbank, or for people dealing with mental health issues but without access to immediate support. There is often a sense of shame that comes with using the foodbank, but it is clear that poverty is the responsibility of local councils, government and wider society, not solely the individuals who are plunged into it.
Now, imagine sitting down this Christmas with your family and friends. Perhaps it is cold, so before dinner, you turn to everyone and ask them to choose between a cooked meal or keeping the heating on. It is unimaginable to most of us, yet this is a choice that many people in poverty have to make on a daily basis.
This December, the Epsom and Ewell Foodbank will give £3000 to local greengrocers and butchers in the area. As well as boosting the local economy, the vouchers intend to give people fresh meat and vegetables as well as an energy top-up, so there is no need to choose on Christmas day between a cooked meal or staying warm.
The Foodbank is a short-term solution, albeit a vital one. Jonathan Lees, the senior leader, hopes that one day they can close their doors for good. But until this happens let us all take the time to add something else to our weekly shop, donate food, high quality goods or even money. Foodbanks rely on all of us to run successfully. We are all part of the Surrey community, and we can each adopt the positive spirit that drives the local foodbanks to help people seeking reprieve from the darkness of poverty.