Home-schooled and hungry: The schools feeding London’s most vulnerable children

With much of the media focused on the trials of home schooling and keeping kids entertained during lockdown, many of Haringey’s most vulnerable families are facing a tougher, less publicised challenge – feeding their children. Hundreds of parents across the London borough, many of whom are on zero-contract hours contracts or lost their jobs when the crisis hit, had previously relied on the government’s free school meals programme to feed their children twice a day, five times a week. Now, they’ve suddenly found themselves with young mouths to feed three times a day, but no money to buy food.

One school that spotted the potential severity of the situation quickly was Woodside High School, whose teachers banded together to provide more than education to Haringey’s children during this critical period. A number of the school’s students are from vulnerable and low-income communities, so when the COVID-19 crisis started, teachers jumped to action, setting up a food bank to help the families most in need.

Poster advertising Woodside High School Food Bank

Thanks to our Haringey Heroes, our community donors and corporate partners who’ve supported the COVID-19 Appeal, Haringey Giving was able to supply the school with a grant to fund the food bank for about four weeks, but that supply is starting to run low.

“The need has increased tenfold in the last eight weeks –224 families are now using the food bank,” says Gerry Robinson, headteacher at Woodside High School. “I can only see the situation getting worse before it gets better. The dream is that we continue to receive enough donations to enable us to support all of the families that need us.” 

At the food bank project enters its ninth week, we catch up with headteacher Gerry Robinson, a true Haringey Hero, to find out how how’s it’s going and what additional support is needed.

Hi Gerry! Why was it important to set up a food bank at Woodside High School? 

Poverty is a huge issue for us all of the time and I think COVID-19 has amplified that. About nine weeks ago, the week before schools closed, it was clear that it was going to create a real issue for some of our most vulnerable families. So, we said, "We need to do something. We're going to set up a food bank in school." I asked parents, carers and staff for donations and people brought things into school. The first week of the food bank, about 20 families were using it. But demand has increased tenfold in the last eight weeks – 224 families are now using it.

Two students standing either side of a large table full of food and provisions

How does the food bank work? 

For the vast majority, we deliver food parcels to families. Because we haven’t been able to say “come into the school and get things,” our staff, on a volunteer rota, drive out in their cars and deliver them to people.

I think it's surpassed all expectations. Although we're providing food to 224 families, there will be other families that we haven't reached, who for various reasons haven't felt that they couldn’t come forward, out of pride or anything else. And to be honest, every day we get new names. I wouldn't be surprised if another week down the line we're past 250.

Student holding a box of mushrooms to be disbribruted at the food bank

It sounds like you’re in urgent need of support… 

Yes. Every day we fill the food bank up and by the end of the day, we're in despair because there's nothing left again. Initially we just relied on donations. We’ve managed to build up various different connections, but it’s still never enough. We want to keep it going as long as possible and beyond COVID-19, but that does totally depend on whether we have the resources to do that.

Do you think it will be possible to keep the food bank going indefinitely? 

It’s definitely our intention is to keep going. I think the reality is that many of the families that we're supporting now with the food bank would have benefited from that support before COVID-19, but we didn't have that resource in school. 

Obviously, after COVID-19 we wouldn't be doing all of the deliveries, but to have the resource of food bank in school would be helpful. Lots of our families have said they feel much more comfortable using the food bank here because they know the school. They don't feel as comfortable going outside to the council food banks, not because people aren't doing great work in the council, but because it's not familiar and can be quite unsettling to people. There is a misplaced fear for some people that their details are going to be taken or they're going to be reported to social services or immigration authorities. I think with school, there's already a trusting relationship.

Van driver with food delivery and staff member at the food bank

This much must be a lot of extra work for the teachers, on top of everything else that's going on. How do you keep motivated to keep going?

In all honesty, it’s a full-time job in itself. To run the food bank and be a headteacher is quite challenging, especially at the minute with so much uncertainty about what's happening with year 11 exams and the strategic planning on when kids are coming back in. The vast majority of my time at the moment is taken up by the food bank. We've also got about three members of staff who pretty much work full-time during the day and then we have a rota of staff making deliveries after school – sometimes they’re out still delivering food parcels at 9pm.

Although the food bank was being primarily set up for Woodside and Woodside families, it has extended beyond that. We share a site with Riverside School, which is a special school, and the headteacher asked if their families in need could use our food bank. Similarly, Lordship Lane Primary School asked the same thing because they don't have that resource.

Two students taking in deliveries of snacks for the Food Bank

Tell us about the support you’ve received so far from Haringey Giving’s COVID-19 Appeal.  

In week three, we knew that knew that as much as the need was there, our current operation just wasn't sustainable because we just didn't have the produce. I, personally, was spending hundreds of pounds of my own money to keep the food bank stocked. And obviously you've got lots of people with goodwill who want to help, but there is a limit to how much people can do that themselves. So, we applied and ended with a £5,000 grant from Haringey Giving, which has helped to get us to this point, to week nine. The money has been spent on just keeping the food bank stocked.  We have a little bit left but not much.

Jay at Woodside High School holding a card saying Thank You to Haringey Giving

Going forward, what’s the dream situation? 

In an ideal situation, we wouldn't have the inequality that we have, and we wouldn't have families living in poverty – that's the dream, it's not the reality. I can only see the situation getting worse before it gets better so, in that case, the dream is just that we continue to receive enough donations to enable us to support all of the families that need us. 

Haringey Giving wants to keep support for Woodside High School’s food bank going but we need the help of our Haringey Heroes. We’re currently seeking urgent donations so we can continue to fund projects such as this and support Haringey’s most vulnerable families.

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