There’s a Barbie sat among other dolls. A dancing monkey. Soft cuddly toys. In a food bank in Paddington, London, volunteer Jane is counting through the donated presents to hand out to children next week. Or, as she puts it to me, for “any who need one”.
For families who don’t have the money for bags of pasta or a tin of meat, Christmas means not only hunger but more costs they can’t afford. “I ask people who come in what they’re doing for Christmas and they look at me like, ‘I’m in a food bank. What can I do for Christmas?’” Jane says.
Look around the food bank’s neighbouring streets and you find yourself in the middle of two-tier Britain: in Jane’s words, a “posh” part of the capital that also runs emergency food parcels out of the local community centre. This month has seen the biggest surge in use in the food bank’s three-year history: last week about 100 people came through the doors in a couple of hours. Kensington and Chelsea – where there are streets where the average property can set a buyer back £8m – is about to shut its food bank. Its users are already coming to Paddington, Jane says.
Jane, 52, started helping at the food bank a year ago, after she was made redundant. She’s familiar with illness – she was a health journalist – but is struck by seeing people hungry. “Not a little bit peckish because they skipped breakfast or haven’t had lunch. But hungry because they haven’t eaten for around three or four days,” she says. “Literally nothing.”
As wages shrink, rents rise and benefits are cut, Jane sees the citizens who could be described as collateral damage: a stroke victim left with large lapses in memory sanctioned by the jobcentre for forgetting an appointment; a care worker earning barely a tenner a day because her travel costs come out of her pocket; a PhD student who lost his house and now lives in a Tesco car park. It’s the dark shadows under people’s eyes that stand out for Jane. Frequently they’re stick-thin; disoriented. Very often they’re on the verge of tears. “They feel they have to apologise for being here,” she says. “We had one pensioner shaking with embarrassment.”