‘It’s not what people expect’: how one wealthy London home became a food bank hotspot

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It is not what you would expect to find on one of the most expensive streets in the country. But these are unusual times.

Naomi Russell has transformed her multimillion-pound home overlooking Hampstead Heath, north London, into a food bank distribution centre, helping hundreds of people struggling to feed their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

A pink gazebo dominates Russell’s driveway and acts as a drop-off point for donations. Her car and her husband’s have been shunted out of the double garage to make way for hundreds of boxes storing everything from pasta and fresh fruit to chocolate and exotic spices. And, most importantly, Russell says, box upon box of toiletries, loo roll, nappies and baby milk formula.

“It’s not what people expect to encounter around here, that’s true,” Russell said of her makeshift food warehouse on a road that winds its way from Highgate West Hill towards the wild swimming ponds on the heath.

View image in fullscreenFood is organised at the distribution centre. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“Because of where we are right by the heath, we sometimes have 100-200 people a day spotting us and coming in here to see what’s going on. No one expects to find a food bank distribution centre here.”

Russell said she decided to do something to help people struggling with the fallout of the pandemic early on in the crisis. “It was terrible to see what was happening, and the lack of government support. We had to do something,” she said.

“Hundreds of people were suddenly out of work, and literally couldn’t put food on the table. People who would have had a salary, now have nothing, and have to wait six weeks to get into the benefit system.”

The heavy footfall of walkers passing Russell’s home has been ideal for recruiting volunteers to help with collecting, organising and delivering supplies to 15 nearby food banks.

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“I’ve met all my neighbours now, right up down and round the street. Many of them are helping out,” Russell said. “And then there are all the walkers and joggers out on the heath. People will see us working, and wonder – like you did – what’s going on here? They come over and have chat, they are very surprised that this a food bank donation spot. They don’t think of that sort of thing happening here.

“They will see me working and ask about the house. They are often very shocked. I don’t think they expect the person who owns this house to be working in a food bank.”

Russell said during the first lockdown she would see a jogger at precisely 07:30 every day, and sometimes again at 19:30 when he would head out on a then-rule-breaking second jog. “After a few weeks he stopped and asked, ‘What are you doing out here all day?’. I told him, and now he is one of most dedicated volunteers.”

Russell is not alone in turning her home into a food bank collection point. She formed Food Bank Aid, which supplies food and essential items to food banks across north London, with Jo Rosenblatt. A dozen other homes in the area also act as drop-off points.

Similar grassroots charitable ventures have formed across the country. But Russell’s stands out as unique because of its position on a street where homes change hands for more than £6m.

More than 1.2m emergency food parcels were distributed by the Trussell Trust, the largest food bank network, between April and the end of September – a 47% increase and the busiest ever half-year period for food banks.

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Emma Revie, the chief executive of the trust, said: “Throughout 2020, communities across the country have stepped in to provide vital support to people left without enough money.

“Volunteers in food banks have been working hard under extremely difficult circumstances to make sure support is there for people struggling to afford essentials. But it’s not right that any of us are forced to a charity for food, at any time of year.

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Russell and Rosenblatt said they had at times been overwhelmed by the generosity of people donating supplies, particularly during the October half-term when the government had refused to provide free holiday lunches despite a high-profile campaign by the England footballer Marcus Rashford.

“During the Marcus Rashford period it went absolutely insane,” Russell said. “We got more than double we usually did. In fact there was a day when I actually had to say to people can you keep it and bring stuff in the next few weeks instead. We had queues of cars waiting to drop stuff off.”

They said many people would do two weekly shops at the supermarket – one for their own household and one to donate to the food bank. Others order groceries online to be delivered directly to Russell’s home. “One Ocado man said it was the biggest order he had ever delivered,” Russell said. “It was half of his entire truck.”

The Ocado driver was so struck by Russell’s work that he also volunteers doing deliveries for the food bank in his spare time.

One of the centres supplied by Russell and Rosenblatt is Finchley food bank, three miles to the north. Anna Maughan, who runs it, said the service was supplying more than double the number of households it was catering to before the pandemic.

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View image in fullscreenThe heavy footfall of walkers passing Russell’s home has been ideal for recruiting volunteers. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“We’ve never been so busy,” Maughan said. “We started with a handful of households, but it just grew and grew and now we regularly support 50 households.” During the summer, 110 households queued for supplies.

“There has been a huge rise in people who are desperate for support. It is people on zero-contract-type hours, the people who were just getting by prior to the pandemic and are no longer getting by not getting by at all,” she said.

“It’s anyone that didn’t have a buffer. Some of them are people that would never have expected to come to a food bank, but now have no choice. We have also seen big rise in people seeking support who have entered a refuge.”

The food banks said they had received enough items to support families over Christmas, the time of year when people were most generous in providing donations. But they fear supplies could now run low, when donations dwindle as many people discover the size of their Christmas credit card bill.

“It is in January and February that donations go down but client numbers go up,” Maughan said. “It’s when the bills come in and when the heating and electric costs go up. At the same time donations go down because everyone has overspent. If people would like to donate, it would be great if they could do so [during this period].”