A Brent food bank charity is helping to regenerate a deprived local community
"His suffering is my duty"
In a run-down corner of one of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods, ten children are learning to cook spaghetti bolognese. It smells good. The chef in charge tells them to be proud of their achievements.
And they should be proud. These kids are all young carers. At home, they have sick or disabled parents or siblings to look after. If they can cook, they can keep their families together. And if they can’t, who knows what would happen.
So they come to Sufra, a small food bank and kitchen charity on the edge of the St Raphael’s Estate in Brent, North West London. Here they learn about cooking on a tight budget and how to stay safe in a kitchen.
And that’s not all they learn. Sufra is a Persian word. It describes a tablecloth or rug that is spread on the ground when people eat together. It suggests hospitality, generosity and shared humanity. When people turn to Sufra – whether it’s for a free meal, a pack of baby nappies, or a cookery course – they learn that there are people in their neighbourhood who care about them and want to help.
Those people – 96 regular volunteers and counting – are led by one inspiring individual: Sufra’s director, Mohammed Mamdani.
On the day I visit he’s spent the morning helping a young man called Steve. “He turned up here yesterday,” explains Mohammed. “He’d been discharged from a mental health unit and was living under a bridge.”
Steve needed food, so Sufra fed him. Then Mohammed found the money for five nights of B&B accommodation, to get Steve off the streets. “So now we have five days to get the council to house him,” he says. “He’s highly qualified and has a great employment history, but his life has fallen apart.”
A group of Muslim organisations founded Sufra in 2013 to relieve poverty and economic disadvantage in Brent. Its core work is to give free food to people in desperate need. That need is growing at an alarming rate.
Last year it gave 1,433 food parcels to 3,858 hungry families. That’s double the year before. Among those families were 827 children aged under 18, and 200 younger than five.
Most of the people Sufra helps are going hungry because they’re waiting to get statutory benefits (35%) or their benefits have been disrupted for some reason (25%), usually because of a sanction. One in every six recipients is a family that is in work but not earning enough to eat.
“The people who come here have literally got nowhere else to go,” says Mohammed. “They have fallen through the cracks in the system.”
Sufra gives them enough food and basic supplies for up to seven days. The size of the pack they get depends on the size of their household.
For about two-thirds of the people who come for help, that one parcel is enough. They don’t ask again. They don’t become dependent on charity handouts.
But that doesn’t mean their problems have gone away. If you can’t feed yourself and your family, that’s often just a symptom of a deeper social failure, says Mohammed.
“It would be naive of us to think we can just give someone food and close the door on them,” he believes. “Our aim is to deal with the short, medium and long-term causes of deprivation. The food bank is a mechanism to engage with the most vulnerable. But it’s also a way to regenerate the local community.”
So on top of giving away food and teaching people to cook, Sufra also provides free advice on housing, employment and financial issues. It helps people start their own businesses. And this month it’s launching a vegetable box scheme, so local people can buy healthy food at cheap, wholesale prices.
For the year ahead, Mohammed dreams of opening a pop-up health clinic. This would bring doctors, dentists, dieticians and other professionals onto the local estates, giving easy access to preventative care.
It’s hard to fund this kind of health work, because really the NHS should provide it. “But just because it's theoretically a statutory obligation, that doesn’t mean it's going to happen,” says Mohammed.
A pencil drawing on the wall of the Sufra office outlines the next big idea: Mohammed is raising money to convert a scrap of derelict land next to the foodbank into a community garden and allotment.
This will give people a space where they can come together to grow and learn about food. It will also create paying jobs.
“Some of the people most affected by unemployment around here are those aged 50 to 60,” Mohammed explains. “They often have no qualification and no clear skills, but they are often great with their hands. We want to train them as gardeners!”
Sufra will then help them to sell their services to the area’s growing middle class community.
Throughout our chat, Mohammed is smiling, upbeat and fizzing with ideas. He twists his revolving office chair from side to side and twangs the elastic band that is wrapped around his wrist.
“I get really excited about the work we are doing here,” he says. “Because we are small, we can experiment and try new ideas. We can do things really cheaply. We are a lot more agile than some larger charities. I don’t have to jump through 100 hoops to get something done.”
Sufra is sometimes called a Muslim foodbank, but it’s not a label Mohammed uses. “Our work is purely humanitarian,” he says. “Our donors, supporters and volunteers include people of all faiths and no faith. They are united in the service of the most disadvantaged. The people we serve are our guests, and we refer to our volunteers as hosts."
Only one question makes Mohammed pause: what motivates him to turn up each day?
“I meet so many different characters. And I meet these people face to face,” he explains. “I see their problems. The homeless guy, Steve, I spoke to him for two hours. I learned his story, so I became part of his story. His suffering is now my duty. I don’t have any other reason to live, apart from this work.”
The London Community Foundation has made three grants to help Sufra try new ideas and develop its services
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