It’s 11 am at the Forest Hill site of Lewisham Foodbank and the weather is gloomy. So gloomy, in fact, that the doors of the Malham Christian Centre building open early to let in people queuing outside.

Inside the hall are sofas and coffee tables topped with plates of biscuits and today’s newspapers.

Carol Bostridge, chief operating officer at the foodbank, hurries in shortly after the doors open, having just picked up a delivery.

At the far end of the hall are makeshift booths with tables and chairs. Here, people using the Trussell Trust-run foodbank will sit with volunteers to decide which food items they need.

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Each client is interviewed by a volunteer to decide what food parcel they need

“We’ll interview people in turns, and we listen as much as talk. Life has been difficult for a lot of people,” Carol says.

Walking into the storage room, which is packed full of tins and cans, nappies, biscuits and dried food, Carol explains “we’re probably the busiest of our sites. We’ve got four sites in total.”

The foodbank’s stock comes from a combination of public donations and agreements with nearby supermarkets such as Tesco and Waitrose. People can also donate items in collection points across the borough, including Laurence House and Council-run libraries. 

All items are weighed and sorted by a hard-working team before being distributed out.

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The foodbank's storage room is packed full of food and toiletries

People who visit the foodbank are usually equipped with a red voucher explaining their need to be there. These are distributed in various places, including GP surgeries and charities.

“Sometimes people don’t have a red voucher – we deal with them on a case-by-case basis. But compassion always wins over rules,” Carol explains.

She is later interrupted by a phone call from a client who doesn’t have a voucher, but who needs to visit the foodbank.

“She is a full-time foster carer, but at the moment she doesn’t have any kids with her. Because of that, she doesn’t have an income,” Carol says.

The centre begins to fill up with clients as midday approaches. One of these clients is 56-year-old Breada, who has been using the foodbank on and off for about two years.

“[The staff] are lovely,” Breada says while Neil, a volunteer bandages up her hand which she injured while trying to fix a chair.

Gesturing towards Neil, she adds: “He looks after everyone.”

Breada has lived in south-east London all her life and has been in Sydenham for the last nine years. She visits the foodbank because her bills are unaffordable.

“Money-wise, it’s the bills. I pay the bills because I don’t want to be evicted but I’ve hardly eaten for two weeks. I’ve just been eating sweets. All I’ve got in my fridge is butter.”

Breada, who lives with her son, visits the foodbank every couple of months. When she can afford to shop for food, her son helps her at the supermarket.

“He’s my life,” she gushes.

While Breada admits her money struggles can make her feel low, when I ask her how the staff at the foodbank help her, she beams.

“They welcome you and they’re straight on you the minute they walk in offering you a tea or a coffee.”

While the busy volunteers are making hot drinks, interviewing clients and sorting food parcels, Carol notes a rise in use of the foodbank since it first opened – with her own figures pointing to a 20 per cent increase in visitors in the first four months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.

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Carol notes a rise in the use of the foodbank since it first opened

Warehouse manager Garry notes this rise can be seen on the frontline, with staff at the Forest Hill centre recording more visitors each Wednesday and Friday when doors open.

“On Wednesday mornings we used to see 10-12 people but now we can see 20 people and consider that quiet,” he said.

While staff and volunteers admit the rise cannot be put down to one single element, the rollout of universal credit continues to rear its head when clients explain their situation.

“Anecdotally, the people phoning me up saying, ‘I’m on universal credit and I haven’t got a payment for another month’ are increasing,” Carol says, adding many people find the system difficult to understand.

Although some people continue to use the foodbank over longer periods, there are spikes in demand during times like school holidays.

“You get the people who are working; who are just about managing most of the time. The number of phone calls I get people saying ‘I was alright until…’”

Lewisham Foodbank aims to help people in need while putting them in touch with other organisations that can offer them more permanent support.

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Products delivered to the foodbank need to be sorted into categories

“We’re a sticking plaster on a bigger problem. We need people to be plugged into a system that’s going to give them better support.

“Lewisham is a brilliant borough where everybody works together and liaises with each other.”

And the spirit of teamwork shines among the volunteers at the centre, with people of all ages helping out.

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Codie-Louise and Matthew are both 19 years old and from Cumbria

Matthew Andrews and Codie-Louise Savage, both from Cumbria, are 19 years old. Matthew has been helping out at the foodbank every week while on his gap year, during which time he is interning in Parliament. Codie, a friend from home, has come to visit him and wanted to help out too.

Praising the volunteers, Garry says: "It's all teamwork. They're good teams. It just works.

"We get people coming here from everywhere. We get people turning up here that want to come here because of the staff and because of the way they are treated."