This year London Challenge Poverty Week (17th to 23rd October) happened at the time when the country is in the grips of the worst cost of living crisis in the last forty years. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty profile (2022) over 14.5 million people in the UK are living in poverty. Over a decade of cuts, stagnating wages, low benefit payments, shrinking council budgets and the impact of the COVID pandemic were already pushing people below the breadline and increasing homelessness. Since the middle of 2021 the impact of Brexit and the energy crisis kicked in, and by 2022 the war in Ukraine and global oil price fluctuations have resulted in soaring fuel, energy, food, service, childcare and housing prices. These have hit the population hard, and those already struggling are not equipped to absorb this shock and are at a greater risk of poverty and deprivation. The Resolution Foundation predicts that more than one million people are set to be plunged into poverty by 2023 in the UK. The cherry on top are warnings about food shortages over the coming winter months. Food banks and the recently opened warm banks are expecting incredibly busy periods over the winter.
London, the capital of the nation, is a city of great wealth and huge inequality in wealth distribution. Families in London face far higher living costs than families living elsewhere in England. Poverty is higher in London than the other parts of the UK at 27%. Nearly 40% of Londoners have an income below the amount needed to achieve a basic decent standard of living. In 2021 Trussell Trust reported that over 166,000 emergency parcels of food were given out of their food banks in London. In the current scenario poverty is evenly split among in-work and workless households. According to Ealing Council data published in 2018 – one in eight workers live in poverty, around 3.7 million people.
ESDEG works in Southall and Northolt, among the 20% most deprived areas in England (IMD,2019) that fall under the London borough of Ealing. Though the Trust for London Poverty Rate (2020) map shows Ealing borough to be at the mid level, Ealing Food Bank has reported that for the year April 2021 to March 2022 it was the busiest Trussell Trust foodbank in the Greater London area. Poverty is not a mere statistics for us, it’s a lived experience often with heartbreaking consequences that we see our clients who belong to the BAME and refugee backgrounds struggling with on a daily basis. The UK poverty rate is twice as high for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups as for White groups according to an Ealing Council report published in 2018.
Unfortunately food poverty is not a recent phenomena in the UK, the cost of living crisis has exposed the severity of food poverty in the country and exacerbated it further. In order to plug the gap created by the welfare system, at ESDEG we run two food projects. The first one is targeted at the senior members of the refugee communities. Once a week an elderly social club is hosted by ESDEG in Southall where among other activities, we serve hot lunch to the participants. Our project coordinator is of the view that a lot of the senior members attend the club for the food. For a majority of the seniors we estimate that it might be the only hot food that they have access to throughout the week. Gentle exercises, socialising, and health check-ups are some of the other benefits of attending the club.
The other project which ESDEG runs are the healthy cooking classes thrice a week for two hours at our Northolt centre. This is targeted towards women from BAME communities who we know often have to face the worst burnt of poverty in a household. They are the ones who eat less or skip meals in order to feed the children and the men. They are also constantly stressed about how to afford the day to day living costs which increases their feelings of hopelessness and makes them feel anxious and isolated.
ESDEG’s cooking class is an extremely popular activity which is run by a lovely Afghan lady with the support of our staff. Every week she comes prepared with a healthier version of a traditional recipe that she prepares fresh in our kitchen while demonstrating to the participants. Once cooking gets over, the food is served hot with a big portion of salad, often accompanied with bread or rice. These classes were initially designed for an hour, but the participants suggested that they felt rushed in that timeframe. So now we have expanded it to two hours, where in the first hour women learn how to prepare and cook the recipe and in the next hour they gather around our communal table to enjoy the meal. These lunches are jovial times where the women unwind, share a laugh and enjoy each other’s companies. Our staff often talk about mental health issues and share pertinent information with them. Women are encouraged to pack up the leftover food and take home which they willingly do. In the last 6 months of 2021 ESDEG has served 54 women from the BAME community through this project.
We have noticed a significant positive impact of these projects on the health, well being and self esteem of our clients. We do realise that in the current cost of living crisis this may not be enough food support to the communities.
It is a shame that despite being the sixth richest country in the world, the UK has the highest rate of food poverty among all the European nations. ESDEG joins with the other community and voluntary sector organisations to urge the governments at national, regional and local levels to take immediate steps to tackle this social emergency and provide to the poorest population of this country a life of dignity, free from poverty.