The battle against hunger


By - Friday 7th February, 2014

As foodbanks make headline news, Liz Sheppard-Jones meets Fatima Koroma, founder and director of Croydon Foodbank


Fatima Koroma, founder and director of the Croydon Foodbank. Photo by Tom Black.

Fatima Koroma is the highly-engaged and eloquent founder and director of the Croydon Foodbank.  Following her return to the UK in the mid-noughties after three years abroad, she volunteered for Croydon Healthwatch after finding job-hunting difficult as the recession deepened. In trying personal circumstances following a relationship break-up, her role gave her an awareness of the growing numbers of local people in a precarious financial position. Motivated both by a desire both to help others and to give herself a sense of purpose at a difficult time, she launched the scheme in 2010.

Croydon Foodbank now extends across Croydon and forms a network including Purley Food Hub, a church group; Nightwatch, a charity supporting homeless people; the Shrubland Trust, a counselling and advice service; and Salvation Army branches in Central Croydon and New Addington.   Sustaining the service requires an on-going process of funding applications which she found challenging at first, but practice has made her an accomplished advocate for her organisation. The Foodbank has recently become the recipient of funds from UnLtd, a charity which makes awards to social entrepreneurs.

A normal day for Fatima and her team brings between 120 and 140 referrals – a referral frequently representing not an individual but a group. She mentions that on a ‘quiet’ Monday just after Christmas 2013 when ‘only’ twenty-two referrals were received, three of these were families of five.

She also takes on the challenge of volunteer management, supervising the 15 people in total who have worked for the organisation since 2010, and tells me that at times this can be the most difficult part of the job. Motivating a team and supporting others is not easy when work can be emotionally exhausting as well as demanding both physically and in terms of resources.

There’s no limit if you know people won’t have money for weeks

Volunteers use their own vehicles to collect larger contributions and receive no petrol or travel allowances. Moving lots of tinned food involves heavy lifting and Fatima must bear in mind health and safety considerations along with working-time restrictions for volunteers who are in some cases job-seekers themselves.

Fatima is sustained by the support and encouragement she receives from Croydon’s referral agencies, chiefly social services but also on a regular basis Croydon YMCA, GP practices, schools (ten of which, mostly in the north and west of the borough, are on the Foodbank’s books), the police, Citizens Advice Bureau and hospitals. I now discover for the first time how acute food poverty in Croydon can be a consequence of hospitalisation.

Image taken by Salvation Army USA West and used under Creative Commons licence

How can this happen? Fatima explains that since a patient is no longer either working or job-hunting, they can enter benefit status or fail to maintain the compliance (attendance at the Jobcentre and so on) required to continue to receive their benefit. Then, even if referred to social services on the day they leave hospital, they cannot immediately access money for food. She hears of delays in receiving benefit from her foodbank users again and again.

Her team makes home deliveries to vulnerable clients like these, and Fatima describes how when bringing food to people with limited mobility isolated in their homes, she and other volunteers have repeatedly incurred parking tickets by overstaying the permitted time because, as she puts it: “They are all alone. How can you just leave?”

Our borough is a microcosm of a worsening national picture

Does she enjoy what she does? She tells me that her role is sometimes draining, simply because she witnesses so many people under such a burden of stress and fear. Yet her role in assisting them gives her deep satisfaction and also emotional relief: “It keeps depression away” she says. I find her not angry but matter-of-fact and I sense that the imperative of action carries her forward – ultimately what’s important to her is that the work must be done.

It’s worth raising our gaze from Croydon for a moment, in 2011 the Lambie report commissioned by the Trussell Trust stated: “The changes in The Welfare Reform Bill of 2011 [...] could impact on the lives of many potential and existing clients of charitable food assistance programmes and may increase demand.” Within it, a foodbank manager told the report: “I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. I think there’s a lot more to come”.

Almost three years on, in 2013 over 350,000 people in the UK ate from foodbanks. Present conditions may jeopardise the UK’s international human rights obligations as deepening poverty threatens people’s food security. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has at last commissioned research into the prevalence of emergency food aid in the UK.

I actually believed in the Big Society

As Fatima explains, our borough is a microcosm of a worsening national picture. Food poverty was already present in Croydon and elsewhere before 2010, and the use of foodbanks had in fact increased more than tenfold under the last Labour government. She imposes no limit on the number of times she will help each applicant because she is faced with people who will not receive income from any source for weeks at a time. Croydon’s food bank users find themselves in acute food poverty chiefly due to redundancy, a sudden unexpected bill on a low income, and in particular benefit sanctions, imposed where a job-seeker fails to meet a target number of weekly job applications. “There’s no limit if you know people won’t have money for weeks” she tells me. (The Trussell Trust estimates that 43% of all those referred to foodbanks are there because of benefit stoppage or the refusal of a crisis loan).

When Fatima first opened her doors she shared premises with the former Fairtrade shop opposite Croydon Minster, supported by a £2,500 council grant. Initially Croydon Foodbank and the minster worked collaboratively, but since 2011 Fatima has operated independently of the minster. “I just didn’t feel that they supported what I was doing”, Fatima explains, although she admires the role churches play in operating foodbanks across Britain and the minster still runs its own foodbank which is well-supported by congregants. But the minster’s reluctance to engage with another operator was something of a shock to her. “I actually believed in the Big Society”, she tells me.

The topic of co-operation between service providers in Croydon arises again when I ask about her relationship with the Trussell Trust. Croydon Foodbank does not work with Trussell although it was approached by the trust shortly after opening and has links to the organisation on its website, it was just too expensive to invest in the franchise. The trust, which describes itself as “a Christian organisation motivated by Jesus’s teaching,” then offered to waive its ‘joining fee’ if she would pray with recipients as they collected food. ‘Pray to eat’, however, was not a direction Fatima wished Croydon Foodbank to take.

It’s uplifting that people work together to help one another

Something of a turf war seems to have been taking place between local service providers, but is resolving itself as Croydon Foodbank gains wider recognition. After this less-than-straightforward start, Fatima explains: “It was difficult at first, then as I began to receive support from churches I had not approached, I realised most just didn’t know who they were dealing with. We focus on the support we are getting”.

Is Fatima Koroma a feel-good person? The answer is complicated. I feel I have met a woman who shines a light across both her personal shadows and across Croydon through the work she is doing. The donations Croydon Foodbank receives are inspiring too – members of our community care for each other whatever their own problems may be and the food keeps coming in, from large corporate donors such as Waitrose and Tesco, small businesses and the public.

But should we as Croydonians feel good about Fatima? I say no, and I believe she would want me to say it. Respect and admiration for workers like her, and gratitude to all who donate food, are of course widely-felt. But foodbanks are not heart-warming – and let’s not even mention the D word, use of which led to expressions of anger when Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, tweeted his ‘delight’ at the opening of yet another bank.

In the words of Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food: “Access to food is the perfect bellwether for broader socio-economic inequalities”. Closer to home Tom Black, one of the Citizen’s editors, tweeted his memorable description of foodbanks: “They are ‘monuments to social failure’”. It’s uplifting that people work together to help one another and that Fatima Koroma has taken on the difficult role of leadership in Croydon at this time. But it seems we are unable to mend the ever-widening cracks in our civil structures through which, in 2014, human beings are falling.

In this borough, as elsewhere in the UK, individual compassion and the work of people like Fatima Koroma are now the final safety net beneath our faltering welfare state.

If you would like to donate food, expertise, money or time please contact or visit the website http://croydon.foodbank.org.uk/get-involved.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article.

  • Guest

    Would NEVER work with this woman…VERY divisive, and territorial. Does not like authority and loves to do her own thing!!….all mouth!