'Clearly insufficient' - Canning Town teacher in charge of foodbank talks free school meal hampers

Rokeby foodbank team

Rokeby School Teacher Omer Bashir - pictured with colleagues from the foodbank team - has overseen 164 packages be given out since the beginning of the pandemic. - Credit: Omer Bashir

Food poverty has been one of the key issues heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Lockdown has shone a spotlight on how, for some children, the free meal they get at school may be their most substantial of the day.  

That’s why the now-infamous picture of what was supposed to be a free school meal hamper provoked such furious reaction; no more so than at a Canning Town secondary school that simply knew it wasn’t good enough.  

The Recorder spoke with Rokeby's Omer Bashir about why the picture caused such anger, and about the worrying growth of the school’s foodbank over the past year. 

Omer – now the school’s head of Year 11 – has been running the foodbank since late 2018, long before the realities of coronavirus hit home. 

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The initiative was created in response to the need in the borough at that time, which, according to Omer, has only intensified since the pandemic began: “The child poverty level in Newham is now at 52 per cent, and I think it was at 45pc before.” 

He’s right. According to independent charity Trust for London, Newham’s current child poverty rate – 52pc – is above the 38pc seen in the average London borough. 

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This reality is what incensed staff when they saw that picture: “We knew the packages would not be appropriate for families in the borough, for families in Canning Town. Because of our experience with the foodbank, we knew what the government was giving out wasn’t enough.” 

The school operates a system where parents receive a voucher via email, which can be downloaded and redeemed.  

Deputy headteacher Emma Hobbs – who helps co-ordinate this effort – says that staff then follow up to ensure vouchers can be accessed properly.  

In the event of any issues, the school prints out the vouchers and sends them home – either by post or by home visit. 

Omer started counting the number of packages provided by the foodbank in late February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold. 

As of the time of writing, 164 packages have been distributed, with around 50 families estimated to use the foodbank.  

Made up of donations from pupils, parents, staff, the community, governors, businesses, families can access the service as much or as little as need demands.  

The former Rokeby student explains that the origins of this problem long pre-date Covid-19: “I took over as head of year in 2015-2016; I’d have one-to-one meetings with parents where I’d hear about the extent of the problems.” 

Five years on and this has only grown; so much so that Omer was prompted to create a foodbank team just before Christmas because “we got to the point where we expected demand to rise”. 

Foodbank Rokeby

Supplies at the school's foodbank have been kept plentiful thanks to donations from staff, governors and generous members of the public. - Credit: Emma Hobbs

He was able to manage the service alongside one other person during the first lockdown, but it became increasingly difficult when pupils were back for autumn term. 

Between 10 and 15 members of staff now volunteer their time, with the foodbank more streamlined as a result: “We know now when families come to us, we can easily get them what they need.” 

Although Omer is proud - particularly as a former pupil - to be providing this service, he admits that seeing constant struggle takes its toll: “We see a lot of people suffer and sometimes it feels like there is nothing we can do. It’s hard not to let it affect you, but it’s part of the job.” 

He makes the point that eligibility for free school meals is actually going down; not because of lesser need, but because the criteria is now stricter.  

This concerns him, as does recently-published guidance which advises schools against such provision during the upcoming February half-term: “What’s frustrating is the fact that they keep having to decide. I think they should just keep the provision until this hard time is over.” 

Regardless of what happens, Omer’s efforts to combat food poverty – alongside those of his school – look set to continue well beyond Covid-19.

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