Suchismita Majumdar, Communications & Policy Officer, ESDEG
Ever since Ms. Ragini Patel started running a food bank on Friday mornings from the Viking Community Centre in Northolt where ESDEG operates from, my colleagues have been telling me about how brilliantly she runs it. I got to witness it first-hand last Friday.
I used to volunteer for a soup kitchen in Oxford’s Cowley Road so I was thinking I knew what to expect, but I was not ready for the community centre’s long hallway filled with people of various ages and races waiting with their bags. At a glance there were Somalis, East Europeans, local Whites, South Asians, Afghans, Caribbeans including mothers with their babies in the buggies, middle aged people, many elderly people and some youngsters too. By the time I arrived at the centre a little before ten in the morning they were all waiting for Ragini and her team of volunteers to finish setting up. At the entrance a volunteer had set up a registration desk where she was taking down the name of the recipient and how many were there in the family. This was to estimate how much food that person would need to be given so that the family is fed.
According to The Trussell Trust 1 in every 7 people are facing hunger in the UK because their income from work, social security or both is insufficient to cover the costs of rent, food, energy and other essential bills. No amount of budgeting makes their incomes stretch to accommodate their basic needs. Elderly people are making a choice between food and heating, while parents are going hungry to feed their children and the conditions of parents whose children have disability or special needs is even more stretched.
Seeing the anxious faces of the people waiting for food parcels brought these numbers into fresh perspective for me. It is not a pleasurable experience to come looking for food every week, but when we are trapped by poverty and cannot feed our children, human dignity is a luxury most of us cannot afford.
I had been planning to click some photographs, but decided not to.
I entered the food distribution room and the scene there was hectic, rows of tables were set up with big blue plastic baskets (the ones in which supermarket delivery vans bring food) – starting with tinned foods like soups, tomatoes, vegetables, next were a range of microwavable foods, followed by bottles of oils, jars of condiments, packets of pasta, rice and flour all the way to potatoes, onions, fresh vegetables and fruits. You could say it looked like a mini supermarket in there. Each table was manned by a volunteer and two of them were busy labelling Nando’s chicken which comes in big packs and have to be repacked into individual parcels.
I spoke to one of the volunteers, a friendly lady whose children go to the same school as Ragini’s. She was talking about how heart breaking it was to see the rush every Friday morning but at the end of the session it felt good to think that they have feed so many people who would otherwise go hungry.
Meanwhile the lady at the registration desk comes in, a total of 57 people had signed up that morning. It was time to start the food distribution, Ragini asked her volunteers to take their food parcels and to store them in the kitchen so that it was not given out by mistake to someone else. Once that was done, Ragini did a quick Health & Safety chat, reminding the volunteers how to evacuate in case of emergency and she also reminded the volunteers to tell those picking up the Nando’s chicken not to refreeze it and to check about allergies. As they opened the doors, I slipped out not wanting to be an obstacle in their operation. The distribution went on till 1.30 p.m. and then the team started sorting and packing up the remaining food and finally the cleaning process.
Once everything was done and the last person had gone home with some food for their family, I sat down with Ragini for a chat. Sharing our conversation below in a Q&A format.
Q. Could you introduce yourself please?
A. Hi, I’m Ragini Patel, a single mum of three children, a local resident in Northolt, I live in the flat opposite (Radcliffe Way), work as a part-time teacher, volunteer at various places, run this foodbank, also do advisory work in housing and welfare benefits, debt management.
I’ve been recognised by the community for my voluntary work, I’ve won the Southall community awards 3 years in a row, also the MBE and was invited to attend the King’s coronation.
You can check out Ragini’s volunteering efforts at this Ealing Council post.
Q. When did you start the food bank?
A. This foodbank which operates from the Viking Community Centre every Friday morning was started on 2nd of December 2022.
Q. Why did you start it?
A. During 1st phase of Covid I used to volunteer in a foodbank, when that closed, I was dismayed because I knew that the need in the community was immense so I decided to start my own here in Northolt. Luckily, I met Mohamed (Mr. Mohamed Ahmed, Director ESDEG) at a networking event and when he heard about my plans, he invited me to host the foodbank at this centre. Once I had a space free of rent I could concentrate on the rest.
Q. How do you source your food?
A. I’ve registered this foodbank with organisations like FareShare, and Neighbourly who give out local store contacts from where we can pick up food. We get our food from Gails, Pret A Manger, Aldi, Sainsburys, Tesco, Nandos, Wenzel’s the Bakers and Felix Project. There might be a few more partners, please pardon if I’ve left out one or two. But yeah, on a regular basis these are our food providers.
Q. What sort of people do you cater to through this foodbank?
A. It’s a mixed bag, we get a lot of asylum seekers, refugees, disabled people and their carers, a lot of elderly people who are mostly pensioners and their carers, single mums with young children, yes, we get a lot of young families.
Q. Are these people all local to Ealing?
A. Yes a lot of them are from Ealing, we mostly get people from Southall and Northolt, but we also get people from Hanwell, Hounslow, and Harrow. Some people travel for an hour by bus to get to us.
Q. How many people do you feed every week?
A. Through this foodbank we feed 55 to 60 families every week. Then the leftover food I distribute to various places like there’s a church in Wembley. I support a homeless charity in Slough. I work closely with Shree Jalaram Mandir in Greenford, we support each other with food, clothing, bedding, toiletries etc for distribution.
Q. Do you work with children?
A. In the half term we get a lot of children, we do Christmas presents, easter egg hunts, distribute school uniforms, warm clothes etc
Q. How many volunteers do you have?
A. Currently I have 10 volunteers. Even my children volunteer when they are on holidays. Like today my eldest daughter is here with me since morning helping out.
At this point a lady comes in and is dismayed to find that the foodbank was over. I had seen the lady earlier in the morning, so had Ragini. When asked the lady said that she had to leave for her doctor’s appointment and couldn’t get the food. Excusing herself from our conversation, Ragini put together a parcel for this lady and then we resumed our conversation.
Q. How do the volunteers help you in running the foodbank?
A. They are the backbone of this operation; without them I couldn’t have done this. They help with food pick-up, set-up the space, pack the parcels, Nandos chicken comes in big packs, they repack those in smaller portions and label those, sort out the food according to halal, non-vegetarian, allergies etc, register people who come in, calculate how many are there that day, then we do a quick approximation about how much food we can give out to each family, then they man the tables and distribute the food, once they finish serving, then we begin the task to sorting the leftover food and packing those to be given away to other places, and then they help clean the space before everyone leaves.
Q. Do the volunteers also avail the services of the foodbank?
A. Yes, before we open the doors, I ask my volunteers to take their share of food and put those away so that their food is not given out by mistake.
Q. Is your foodbank independent or tied to another charity like the Trussell Trust?
A. We are independent and non-profitable. Whenever someone offers donation, I ask them to donate in kind. There’s a meditation group who have donated to us on two/three occasions which have helped a lot.
Q. What are your plans for the foodbank going forward?
A. I intend to carry on as long as I can because the need in the community is still very high and there’s no sign of any of it diminishing.
Q. Any other initiatives you are involved in?
A. A lot of people come to come to me for advice on debt, money management etc even though there are charities and even council offering this service. You know it’s the trust factor, over time I’ve built up a rapport with them, they feel comfortable talking to me, also they trust that I’m going to give them the right advice. So, I’m trying to open a surgery where I can offer advisory services on debt, finances, energy bills etc because I’ve professional experience in this. I’m currently in talks with my local MP James Murray regarding this, let’s see if this works out.
Q. Any message you have for the wider public, how people can pitch in and help?
A. Even if you can spare half an hour or an hour in the week to help, reach out and do it, the community needs your support.
If you would like to volunteer at the foodbank or would like to donate please get in touch with Ragini via email email@example.com.