In Kingston, South-West London, amongst leafy streets and upmarket cafes, a group of volunteers meets in a church to welcome locals who have been referred by government or by other charities for food aid.
One man who has been referred for assitance used to be a night guard but is now recovering from 6 months of treatment for throat cancer that left him with only 60% of his tongue, and so is struggling to find work. “And before you ask, I never smoked. Not once. It’s hereditary.” He wants to make sure that I do not blame him for his cancer. “My Dad’s been treated for cancer too,” I share. His response floors me: “Well, to you and your father let me say this: Positive Mental Thinking, Positive Mental Thinking. It will be OK.” And I realise that he is counselling me. A volunteer brings tea. “Thank you so much,” he says to the volunteer, “that’s wonderful.” We run through a list of items he is entitled to. “Spaghetti?” “Yes please.” “Coffee/Tea?” “Can I choose? In which case, coffee.” “What’s your favourite food?”, I ask. “Chinese. I’m just a couple of weeks out of treatment now but I’ve got the all clear and I’m gonna get a job. And then I’m gonna buy a Chinese takeaway meal. Positive Mental Thinking.”
Another man tells me of his gratitude to the Job Centre official who got a mistake corrected and a three month deduction cancelled. He’s looking forward to tomorrow’s football competition he is taking his son to. “It’s expensive,.£3, but another parent will drive us. People are very kind.”
I ask the volunteers what kind of people are referred in. “Oh, we’ve had people who are in work but don’t earn enough, we’ve had people who’ve been ill, people who have had a mistake made on their benefits, we had someone who had been well-to-do but lost his job, we get quite a few ex-soldiers, too, they find it hard.”
Is it tough volunteering here, I ask? “Yeah, it can be, when the people are crying. One man howled, I’d never heard a man howl before. He was at rock bottom. I stayed with him for two hours. It’s about more than the food. It’s about listening. Showing people that they matter. We have to help wherever there is need. That’s what we are commissioned for.” The confused look on my face shows at her use of the word commissioning. For these are volunteers, not contractors. “I mean our great commission.” She is talking of a higher authority than government.
The church partners with the local mosque and donations are pooled. People of all faiths and none serve together.
“How long would you be able to last without any job?” one volunteer asks me. I think about it. “Wow. One month. I’d only last one month.” “Yeah, that’s it, you see, it could be you.” If it is ever me, I will want to go see the volunteers of the Kingston Food Bank. Not just for the food. But because they will not judge, just help. Because I am their neighbour.