Before the 3Food4U hub in Chigwell, Essex, opens to service users lined up outside, there’s a buzz in the air. Music is playing from a loudspeaker and locals are talking to one another as they wait to do their weekly shop.
Pesh Kapasiawala, 54, the founder of the charity and its chair of trustees, tells i many of the people happily chatting away to one another now didn’t know each other before coming to 3Food4U.
The organisation is providing not just essential food items but much-needed social interaction and community for those that use it.
“People have become really, really isolated in the last couple of years,” Mr Kapasiawala, who started the service during the first Covid lockdown in June 2020 for people in desperate need, says.
3Food4U distributes surplus food from big and small businesses to those in need free of charge. Its approach has saved tonnes of produce from landfill, Mr Kapasiawala says.
The charity has five hubs located in Waltham Abbey, Loughton, Chigwell, Ongar, and Tottenham.
Once a month, service users have access to a free NHS health check and a recruitment specialist to assist with CVs and finding work.
While the hubs are not exclusively for people on low incomes or in receipt of benefits, they are lifeline for people who are finding the cost of living crisis particularly tough.
“I live in Chigwell, an area which on the face of it is affluent but has real poverty and deprivation, and is one of our busiest hubs,” Mr Kapasiawala says.
And demand is growing. Dozens of people queue up each day and Mr Kapasiawala says the number of service users has jumped 30 per cent to 1,200 families since the start of the year.
Unlike traditional food banks, no referral is needed. It means people like Monique, 42, who is not claiming benefits but is struggling financially, can access the support.
The mother of three has been using the service for over a year since she was made redundant from her job in youth offending services. At first she wasn’t coming every week, but for the past three weeks she has been.
“It’s a case of you know what, I don’t care what I’m doing, I’m going to try and make a conscious effort to get to this place,” the high level teaching assistant says.
It has been a particular help with what she says is the “absolutely ridiculous” rising cost of utilities.
Monique recently split from her partner and the sharp rise in the cost of living at a time when she is down to one income has been especially hard.
“My gas and electricity bills are now £300 and before it used to be £175 I used to pay via direct debit. I’m now single person and paying double everything,” she says.
Monique, leaves the hub with three full bags of supplies, something she estimates would have cost her £70 in the shop.
She says the savings mean she has more flexibility and can make less cutbacks.
“I can now afford to go on a trip with them [my kids] and things like that. Half-term is coming up, for example, that money can be spent doing activities with them.”
It also means she can spend more time with her children.
“Right now I work seven days a week just to make ends meet,” she says.
Another mother, who only wanted to give her surname, says she initially felt “quite uncomfortable” to come to get free food. But when her husband lost his job in the catering industry during the pandemic, grocery shopping became a struggle.
Ms Begum, 40, who is accompanied by her three children, says: “It was really difficult for us managing the household with the kids.
“Even though we did shopping, it wasn’t enough.”
She says the food she gets from the charity, an estimated £60 worth of goods, is particularly helpful as her gas and electricity bill has recently increased by £50.
Olu, who is in his fifties and has two children, became a single parent when his wife passed away a few years ago. He receives benefits but says the support is “nowhere near enough”.
“Nothing is left over,” Olu says about what he has to spend after paying his bills.
He says attending the hub means he can rely less on friends and family for extra support.
“I just think it will just be more pressure on the support groups around us… now we can spread it without putting pressure on the little number.”
Mr Kapasiawala, who prefers to refer to the sites as community surplus hubs, is determined to ensure that people who use the service are not embarrassed about doing so if they have to.
He equates it to a shopping experience as opposed to a food bank visit – and inside All Saints church hall where the Wednesday afternoon hub is located – there is a market-like atmosphere.
In addition to non-perishable items, people have the choice of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, pre-prepared meals via the Felix Project and baked goods from Marks and Spencer and Greggs.
“We are here to support people in a dignified way,” he says. “It’s about empowering them.”