Help the Hungry: Even at half term, families queue for food in school playground

Evgeny Lebedev
Community spirit: Evgeny Lebedev talks to Dawn Blackham about life on the London estate in lockdown: Lucy Young

It is half term at Willow Primary School on the Broadwater Farm estate, but this means very little to the families queueing outside for food, some surviving day to day on as little as £1.42 per child.

Since last September, the school has received food donations for an informal food bank it runs in the playground. Before the coronavirus crisis, Tottenham was already one of the most deprived areas of the capital, where almost half of children live in poverty.

Yet the situation rapidly worsened after lockdown. “At one point we had families and members of the community calling us every day to say they’ve lost their jobs and need help,” Dawn Ferdinand, the school’s headmistress, tells me.

I visited the school on Tuesday. It has remained open through half term due to overwhelming need. As the van from The Felix Project, our appeal partner, pulled into the car park, parents were already waiting. They stood under the school’s modern awning, separated by colourful plastic sports cones.

Abigail*, 35, who has four children, is unable to go shopping as she cannot leave her kids alone. Her partner, who lives apart from her, is self-employed and has not received any furlough money.

“There was a short period of time where we really struggled,” she confided while packing away a frozen pizza.

“I’m super nervous about the future,” adds Thea, an out-of-work beauty therapist. “This has been the most stressful period of my life.” She barely leaves the house because she is shielding her disabled mother, but is grateful to spend more time with her son, who reaches out to touch her reassuringly as her eyes fill with tears.

The Willow has been proactive in its support for the community. Every two weeks, more than 120 families receive a text message from pastoral staff to enquire about their welfare and financial status. They are also alerted by text to the weekly Felix Project deliveries.

Donna Blackham has lived in Tottenham all her life. She lives with her partner, her two young boys who attend the school and one of her adult children. Initially she was delighted with the prospect of some time off work. “But after a few weeks, the strain came on.”

A part-time dinner lady whose children receive free school meals, she has at times found herself with a budget of just £50 for a family of five, or £1.42 per child.

The extra bills that stem from staying at home have cut into her budget too. She tries to make sure her sons have enough to eat, and has sometimes found herself eating just plain rice and carrots for supper.

“When my wages or my universal credit come in, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot,” she adds while her sons play at flipping a bottle of water behind her.

The Broadwater Farm estate is notorious for exploding into riots in 1985 over the police’s treatment of residents and the death of a woman whose heart failed during a search of her property.

More than 200 police officers were injured and one died from knife wounds. Riots in 2011 in other parts of Tottenham solidified the narrative that estates like Broadwater Farm are bad places to live. Yet while substantial poverty and deprivation continue to exist on the estate, not one of the people I interviewed spoke ill of their area.

“There is a community spirit on Broadwater Farm,” one mother told me. Ms Blackham concludes by telling me that although this period has been difficult, she has appreciated the simple act of a neighbour knocking on her door to check in on her. As we leave the school and walk through the estate, we marvel at the beautiful murals on the apartment blocks.

“People are proud of where they live,” Bradley Blanchard, Willow’s PE teacher, later tells me over the phone.

Having seen how this community has mobilised to support its most vulnerable with our appeal food, I am more convinced than ever that our support must continue – and more proud than ever of what we have achieved so far.

The Independent is encouraging readers to help groups that are trying to feed the hungry during the crisis – find out how you can help here. Follow this link to donate to our campaign in London, in partnership with the Evening Standard.

Evgeny Lebedev is a shareholder of The Independent and Evening Standard​

*Some names have been changed

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