Sufra NW London Charity Food Bank & Kitchen Q&A
More than 29,000 children in North West London are living in severe poverty and may go to bed hungry. Families across the borough are struggling to survive with rising prices, benefit caps and high unemployment. Even those families who may have been comfortable can be caught off-guard when a mother or father is suddenly made redundant.
This is where Sufra NW London, a Community Food Bank & Kitchen based in the London Borough of Brent, provides help and assistance to families suffering food poverty in the local area.
We caught up with Director, Mohammed S Mamdani, to find out more about the charity organisation’s invaluable work.
Can you briefly describe what Sufra does?
Sufra NW London is a Food Hub that provides a lifeline to people in crisis – including families living in extreme poverty and people who are homeless, socially isolated and have no income. We give families the food and support they urgently need to survive, empowering them to find work, improve their wellbeing and build a stronger support network within their community.
Has food poverty in your community improved or worsened over the past five years?
We have seen a steady rise in the number of families experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness since we first opened, five years ago. Currently, we provide emergency parcels of food and other essentials to around 4,000 people who are experiencing severe crisis and unable to afford food for themselves or their families. We expect this number to continue to increase in the months and years ahead, largely because of ongoing cuts being made to the benefits and services that families rely on for their day-to-day survival.
We have seen a steady rise in the number of families experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness since we first opened, five years ago.
Do you believe the current government/council is doing enough to tackle this problem and assist you in your work?
We work closely with Brent Council who refer many people to our Food Bank every week, and we regularly speak with the Leader of the Council, the Mayor of Brent and a number of other Councillors who have always been very supportive of our work.
We’ve found that it’s the policies pursued by central government that have the most detrimental impact on poverty in London and across the country as a whole. There is certainly much more that our elected representatives can – and must – do to help protect the most vulnerable in society and enable all people to have access to nutritious food and live in dignity.
What more would you like to see them do to help the vulnerable?
The politics of poverty is complex, but for a start, the benefits cap must be reversed or significantly revised, as it often means families cannot afford to buy food and pay their rent and bills – many end up heavily in arrears and in debt.
We would also recommend that all working adults are guaranteed a Living Wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation (£8.45 or £9.75 in London).
Finally, there is desperate need for much more social housing in and around London, to ensure that everyone has access to adequate shelter.
We’ve found that it’s the policies pursued by central government that have the most detrimental impact on poverty in London and across the country as a whole.
What’s the worst story you’ve experienced since Sufra’s inception?
Sadly, there are too many to choose from. Many people we help are sleeping rough on the streets or living in appalling temporary accommodation, where there might be multiple security risks and significant health hazards. It’s not uncommon for many of our guests, who only have a few pounds left to get through the week, to be forced to choose between keeping the lights and heating on or buying food for themselves or their children.
Often, the people we see have had no support in accessing the benefits they are entitled to, and find themselves without food and on the verge of homelessness. Sufra serves as a lifeline to families in these circumstances – people who have no one left to turn to, having fallen through every gap in the system.
Can you share any stories of people you’ve successfully helped to get back to normalcy?
Ameerah, who is 59 years old, attended the Food Bank and informed us that her benefit payments had been stopped because she had failed the health assessment, despite visible disabilities that prevented her from working. She had no income and was forced to rely on the Food Bank for emergency food aid. Her housing benefit had also been stopped and she was heavily in arrears. We contacted Brent Council’s Welfare Assistance Team for an emergency payment of £120 to pay for basic costs such as food and utilities. Meanwhile, we submitted a new application for housing benefit, which was reinstated and back-dated within 3 weeks. We then successfully appealed for her benefits to be reinstated, which took nearly two months. Meanwhile, we applied for a subsistence grant from a charity partner and she was awarded £500 to support her through this traumatic period.
What types of people does your Community Kitchen attract, and how many do you think you’ve provided a freshly prepared 3-course meal to date?
Our Chef and brilliant team of volunteers cook a hearty 3-course vegetarian meal every Friday evening for the Community Kitchen, which they serve to our guests. Everyone is welcome to come along, regardless of their personal circumstances – we don’t ask any questions and there is no need to book a table!
We also host regular themed nights, where we serve a unique menu to celebrate a wide range of cultural events, such as Eid or Diwali. Many of the people who join us for the meal first heard about the Community Kitchen through one of the other services we offer, such as the food bank or our welfare advice service. Most experience food poverty or homelessness. Others come because they feel socially isolated and enjoy spending time and sharing food with others from their community. We’ve served between 40-60 guests every single week since we first opened the kitchen about two years ago – that’s at least 5,200 meals and counting.
We’ve served between 40-60 guests every single week since we first opened the kitchen about two years ago – that’s at least 5,200 meals and counting.
How does Food Academy Plus differ from your Food Academy programme?
Sufra NW London’s Food Academy is a fun and interactive 6 week-course that gives young people an accredited qualification in food preparation, kitchen skills and healthy eating. The course provides a supportive environment that enables children to come together and learn about how to eat a varied and nutritious diet. Over 200 children and young people have completed the Food Academy programme in the last 3 years. Most students successfully achieved accreditation, and some found part-time work or considered further training in the hospitality industry.
In comparison, the Food Academy Plus is an intensive 12-week course for adults that provides professional catering skills and is specifically geared towards empowering people to find work in the catering industry. Food Academy Plus also provides an accredited qualification, but it’s a more recent initiative and we have only run two rounds of the course so far (another two are planned for the next 6-month period).
Can you tell us more about St. Raphael’s Edible Garden, as well as its aims and objectives?
We’ve turned a derelict site on St. Raphael’s Estate into a beautiful community garden with a wildlife pond, tipi, chicken coup, fruit trees, vegetables and flower beds. From here we run a Growing Project designed to teach people new skills, empower the unemployed to find work, and provide a therapeutic space for members of the local community. The Project covers a wide range of programmes, including accredited vocational training courses to help the long-term unemployed find work as gardeners, a Growing Club where individuals and groups can volunteer to help develop and maintain the garden, and accredited horticulture courses that teach adults and school children more about ecology, wildlife and growing food.
Demand for our services peak in mid-winter when more people are out of pocket, unable to feed themselves and in urgent need of support.
You have a Food Donations ‘Shopping List’ on your website with a large number of foods you’re in “urgent need of”. Do you find yourself in short supply often?
We are always in need of more perishable food and essential toiletries, no matter the time of year. However, demand for our services peak in mid-winter when more people are out of pocket, unable to feed themselves and in urgent need of support. We have a warehouse where we can stock the excess donations that we receive at other times of the year, such as during Ramadan and Diwali.
Of the 25 food types listed, can you provide a Top-5 Most Important list?
The 5 items we need most urgently are:
- Toilet rolls.
- Tins of Tuna or Sardines.
- Baby Nappies (any size).
- Tinned vegetables.
- Long-life milk.
We always have lots of pasta and rice in stock, as these are donated very regularly.
We have established a Refugee Resettlement Programme that supports Syrian refugee families who have recently arrived in Brent.
What are your short- and long-term plans for the future?
It’s an exciting time at Sufra NW London, as we are expanding the range and depth of the portfolio of services we offer, which already go well beyond providing emergency food aid. For example, we have established a Refugee Resettlement Programme that supports Syrian refugee families who have recently arrived in Brent. Our dedicated refugee advisors help them to access the housing, healthcare, training and jobs they need to build a new life in the community.
Similarly, we are professionalising our existing Welfare Advice Service, training a team of advisors to help people deal with their ongoing welfare benefit and housing problems.
We are also trialling a food-related social enterprise initiative that can help provide a steady income stream for the charity as well as employment opportunities for our Food Academy Plus graduates.
Most recently, we’ve set up an eBay shop to sell some of the excess goods donated to the charity – everything from unused children’s toys to heaters and electric tools.
Sufra Food Bank & Kitchen NW London
160 Pitfield Way, Stonebridge, London, NW10 0PW.