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Bow Food Bank Portraits

April 1, 2018
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I visited Bow Food Bank to do portraits of some of the volunteers who run this vital service and learn about their motives and experiences.

Taking place at Bow Church each Monday morning, this is an independent food bank which means vouchers from the Department of Work & Pensions are not required, anyone who is in need of food can come and ask for help. Assistance to those in crisis is offered in the form of ten items of grocery every other week for up to fifteen visits.

If you would like to donate or volunteer, visit Bow Food Bank

Alison Neville, Volunteer

“I have been working here about six months. I was born in Stepney and now I live in Bow. I started coming for myself when I couldn’t work for a while. They helped me and then I became a volunteer. Even when I do the washing up, I enjoy it. Many people are struggling in this city and the price of living now is unbelievable”

Cody Hopper, Studying Modern History at Queen Mary University

“I enjoy volunteering in the community. It’s not like a job where you get paid, your reward is knowing you are helping other people. I have made friends over the last six months and it is a little community of its own here. The food bank is not just about distributing food, it’s about getting people out of their houses and offering social contact to people who might be lonely. Once I graduate and get a job, I will look for other volunteering opportunities because I enjoy it so much.”

Irena Urbonas, Volunteer

“I retired after thirty-eight years teaching in Bethnal Green about three years ago and I was working in a charity shop but I became ill and couldn’t continue. Because I have been seriously ill, I can advise and support others with serious illness. We see all kinds of problems, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, job loss. If I can help I will, but I do not impose on them. It is not just a food bank, you can get help for problems and some people come back for the social life. If this was here every day, I would come. I love it. I was born in Bethnal Green but my parents are from Lithuania and I come from a very poor background. Yet I never realised I was poor because my dad was a driver so he could borrow cars and drive us around. My mother was very strict and she realised the value of education, so we all went to grammar school. It all comes back because I have been there, and now I can help in a certain way. You see people at the lowest of the low. I do my best to welcome them and give them what they need. It does humble you. I ask people not to thank me because I don’t need their thanks.”

Trevor Blackman, Founding Director of Ape Media

“I’ve been doing this since 2014. Supposedly, I am in charge of the shop but I am here because I enjoy meeting people. The first Christmas we were open, we had one hundred and sixty people come in. There is a real need. A lot of people saw their benefits cut with the introduction of Universal Credit. It hit people hard. We had people on benefits who are struggling to feed their children and that’s horrible – we give them twenty items. Parents go without food to feed their children.”

Ruth, Volunteer

“I just love it, it gets me out of the house and talking to people. People can come here for ten visits and collect ten items and some of these people are in desperate need. Many of them are working on zero hours contracts and not getting much employment, they can’t earn enough to pay the bills. Some of these people are gutted when they get to the end of their visits and they ask me, ‘Where shall we go now?’ They have nowhere else to turn to.”

Pat O’Sullivan, Supervisor of distribution of extras at the Food Bank

“After they have been in the shop, people come to see me and I give them extras, fruit and veg, soap and women’s sanitary products. I came here myself three years ago and then I became a volunteer because I wanted to help others by giving something back. Some people who come are homeless and I have helped a couple to get jobs and find housing. I count everyone here as my friends. All my life, I have been caring for other people.”

Robert Ricks, Volunteer

“I think this place serves a good purpose, people need our services. I am particularly proud that we run it with as little bureaucracy as possible and all the money is spent on food for distribution. We don’t rely on referrals, we allow anyone to come here and get help. I am a retired lawyer and it allows me to make contact with people and be aware of those those less fortunate, whom I might never meet in any other circumstances.”

Dan Clark, Musician

“I have quite a lot of spare time in the day because I work at night. I need to get up early in the morning to come here which is hard sometimes, but I feel compelled to do it. It’s a damning condemnation of our society that people are short of food in such a rich country.”

Lynn Stone, Food Bank Manager

“We are here to address a need as far as we are able. There could be a food bank every morning of the week and still not meet everyone’s needs. If we can do a little to help some people then that makes it worthwhile, but I am sad we cannot do more. It is embarrassing for us that people are so grateful, that’s not a comfortable feeling. We see that the benefits system is not helping vulnerable people, but pushing them into a spiral of decline and need. It’s so unfair.”

Lorraine Villada, Volunteer

“I do all the administration and step in whenever there’s a gap. I do it because I feel fortunate to help people in need. There are a lot of people struggling to buy food and, with the changes in the benefits system, we are seeing a lot more people coming to sign up. I have lived in Tower Hamlets all my life. I like to give something back to the community where I was born and raised. I worked for Tower Hamlets Council but found myself out of work due to illness, but now I have a new job and I hope I shall be able to carry on here because it means a lot to me.”

Debbie Cummins, Registrar

“I am passionate to help people and I have been in the situations they have been in, so I quite understand and I love doing it. I am an East Ender born in Bethnal Green. The benefits officers haven’t got a clue and people get pushed around and nobody cares. But my job is just registering people, I cannot solve their problems. Sometimes people come who have gone six weeks without money, we have homeless people coming in here too and we try to feed them. These are human beings, some of these people had good jobs and now they are homeless. We can see the problem. We see a lot of people suffering. This is the East End and we are all human and we have to help each other. We have people who have used up their visits but they keep coming for the company and a cup of tea because they do not see anyone else and they are lonely. I love this food bank.”

Bushra Bakar, Legal Adviser

“Many clients are on benefits or homeless, so I can advise them and help with other issues like employment and debt management. I did my undergraduate degree in Law at London Metropolitan University. Public law and employment law are my specialities and now I am training to qualify. I’ve come across a number of clients who are rough sleepers without access to benefits, often because they are asylum seekers without legal rights. I assist a lot of people in need and it makes me realise just how many people out there need help.”

Father Javier, Parish Priest of St Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church

“This brings together the whole community under the umbrella of something that unites us all.”

Reverend Debbie Frazer, Rector of St. Mary & Holy Trinity Bow

“I am one of the founders of the Bow Food Bank. We did not want to restrict access to referrals from Department of Work & Pensions and General Practitioners, we wanted it to be unconditional so that people can come to us and say they need help. In the benefits system, people are treated with mistrust as if they were potential criminals, but I think they get more from being treated with dignity and respect. If people come here because they are in need of food, we let them know that they are welcome.”

Merlin, Most-beloved church dog

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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21 Responses leave one →
  1. April 1, 2018

    Bless ’em all. So sad that they’re so necessary!

  2. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Originally from Hackney we have lived in Israel since 1974. Once a week we take “spare food left over from the canteen of a local Hi Tec factory to a Food distribution Kitchen in a nearby town. Other friends also do this food-run. Our friend puts out the food and local needy take what ever they need. Sandwiches are made by our friend who arrives at 6am. The notice for the school kids is always the same. “These sandwiches are for those children who have forgotten to bring their own. The tuna is supplied by cash donations or in kind and the sandwiches have become a favourite. Our leader, originally from Dublin 0ccasionally hears of a family who have fallen on bad times and are too embarased to come along for food. With no one knowing Dave goes along to the home with enough food to keep all the family satisfied for at least a week! All done unofficially and with no bureaucracy. The kitchen has been functioning about 12 years.
    Twice a year before the Jewish New Year and before the Passover holiday with money collected from our friends we distribute about thirty bagfuls of basic supplies. It makes life a little easier for those sadly in Need.

    Melvyn Brooks , Israel

  3. April 1, 2018

    The volunteers are doing a fantastic job helping those in need. It’s sad that so many people today need help in this way. Wealth is badly distributed in most countries of the world. Valerie

  4. John Barrett permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Volunteers shown here day are angels here on earth. Without them and aid some poorer societies around the world would collapse. After a day on the volunteering front line some are exhausted and out of pocket such is their love of us ‘no names no pack drill’, they are the special ones and their work in all sectors of society they say !is paramount. All I can offer at this time are some nice words of support. John Barrett a poet from Bristol.

  5. Geraldine Ryan permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Good portraits of heads and hands good work Sarah Ainslie

  6. M D West permalink
    April 1, 2018

    I actually heard a politician on the radio recently refer to the ‘Thatcher economic miracle’ !!

  7. stephanie bowgett permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Thank you to all of you. Shaming to us as a society that this is necessary, but it is. Xx

  8. Steve permalink
    April 1, 2018

    These guys are doing a brilliant job (we collect for a similar food bank in Walthamstow – Heat or Eat). But in 2018 it’s a disgrace that we have food banks -Lansbury, Attlee and all the other great socialists must be turning in their graves.

    Again – well-done guys and well done Gentle Author for sharing this story

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Easter greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for sharing the stories of those wonderful volunteers who support the Bow Food Bank. Their commitment is inspiring…

  10. Richard Smith permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Thank you for telling us about these good people. They are all heroes.

  11. pauline taylor permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Lovely portraits and well done to all these kind and caring people but it so sad and so shameful that food banks are needed in our rich society. Mrs May should get out and about more and do some voluntary work somewhere like this, perhaps she would then understand what austerity measures are doing to our society.

  12. April 1, 2018

    Wonderful project with wonderful volunteers. My family are originally from the East End, and I went back to live there in the 80s. There was poverty then, but it seems to have got worse if there is now a need for a food bank. But how sad and disgraceful that such a project is needed in the 21st Century.

  13. mark permalink
    April 1, 2018

    Good people. But we all know food banks should not exist. Under the current “crop” we also all know that things will never improve.

  14. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    April 2, 2018

    Good for you volunteers.
    Disgusting that food banks exist in a democracy.

  15. Sandra Hetherington permalink
    April 2, 2018

    What a great bunch of caring people. It is very sad that it is a fact of life that due to illness or misfortune any one of us could become homeless or struggling to make ends meet.

  16. Laura Syers permalink
    April 2, 2018

    What wonderful, wonderful people!

  17. redandblackmanthinks permalink
    April 2, 2018

    These volunteers are doing heroic work.
    Whilst the East End has always had a history of difficult times, as Dan Clark states “It’s a damning condemnation of our society that people are short of food in such a rich country.” It would be interesting to know if there is a proportion of visitors to the food bank that is currently employed, but forced to use the bank due to low wages. Food banks are a result of the government`s apparent infatuation with austerity, an ideology rather than a necessity.

  18. Milo permalink
    April 3, 2018

    Such a tonic to hear and see those excellent selfless people doing such a great job. I have a horrible feeling that in this age of ‘social media’ society is becoming less and less concerned with the needs of people who have fallen on hard times. The photos of the volunteers literally brought a tear to my eye. Thanks guys. x

  19. April 12, 2018

    Thank you for this profile and portraits of our fantastic volunteers. They do amazing work week in and week out. Our foodbank is entirely volunteer led and we just wouldn’t be able to exist without the giving of time and effort of all these individuals.
    Michael, Chair, Bow Foodbank

  20. Shamin permalink
    April 16, 2018

    Honestly nice to see you all of humble and comprehensive hearted people and thanks to all for yours human being cooperation.

    Shamin, Volunteer, Bow Foodbank

  21. Johnny permalink
    November 6, 2018

    I’ve lived across from the church for the past thirty years.I only learned of the foodbank a couple of years ago when a man my own age enquired what time it was opening as I left my flat.
    He said he needed food for his kids. I’ve never forgotten the anguish in his face. You are all local heroes.

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