Jeanette, a 33-year-old mother of three, wipes away tears as she looks at the six crumpled bags of emergency groceries placed at her feet. “It’s like Christmas,” she says, shaking her head and sneaking another glance at the cereal packets and bags of rice that she is about to take home to her empty cupboards. Her teenage son, who is thin and seems small for his age, sees her glistening eyes and stares back down at his phone, looking awkward.
These are two of the attendees of Tower Hamlets food bank, where groceries are distributed twice a week at the Salvation Army hall in Poplar to the most urgently in need.
More than half of all pupils in Tower Hamlets are on free school meals, the highest rate in the country, and the borough has seen one of the most dramatic increases in the numbers coming for help since the school holidays began. In June, 111 people got emergency food, a figure that rose to 202 in July, and last week alone, they fed 107.
Jeanette is one of many who has been helped since the schools broke up last month. She was referred by her social worker and is overwhelmed by the help on offer. “I got taken out of my council house because of domestic violence and put into temporary accommodation,” she explains. “I’m not working because I still have a young baby and I’m in a lot of debt. I’ve been so worried about food, but this is amazing – there’s so much here I’ll struggle to carry it all.”
Denise Bentley, the food bank’s manager, says the situation is critical for many families. “Teachers around here worry on inset days and school holidays. They’re fearful because they know if [pupils] are not at school they won’t eat. This is a reality.”
The centre’s storeroom is up a steep flight of stairs, where basic food, including rice, pasta and tins of tuna, sit next to essential toiletries, such as nappies and toothpaste on industrial metal shelving. A volunteer in a green tabard loads up bags with enough rations for a family to live on for three days – though many try and make them last weeks.
Leanne Reed, 27, came to get food for her and her three children, Elise, seven, Vinnie, six, and Jayden, three. She recently moved back to London from Margate after her marriage broke down. She is about to be evicted because of rent arrears and is now surviving on benefits.
“I was really worried before the start of the summer holidays,” she said. “The home support worker at the kids’ school got me a voucher to get some more food. It’s amazing to have something in my cupboards.”
Kerri Cutler, 33, realised she was going to struggle to get her children Tyrese, seven, Faith, five, and Shyann, three through the summer holidays. “When they’re at school you only have to worry about the evening meal. I’m on benefits at the moment and I’m a single mum, but I’m hoping to train and go back to work when my youngest starts nursery in the autumn.
“As the holidays got closer, I thought, ‘What am I going to do to feed them, let alone entertain them?’”