Epsom and Ewell Foodbank are experiencing unprecedented demand from residents in the area amid the ongoing spread of Covid-19 coronavirus.

Jonathan Lees, 50, is the founder and de-facto manager of Epsom and Ewell Foodbank, working "all hours" and fulltime to keep some of the borough's most in-need residents fed and supported.

On Thursday (April 2), he told the Comet how coronavirus had impacted the work for him and his volunteer colleagues.

"I set up the foodbank just under eight years now and the current period is the busiest period I've ever known since we've been going," Jonathan said.

"We are feeding double our usual numbers per week — on average we feed about 100-110 people.

"Whereas recently we've been feeding around 230 people a week," he continued.

"We're expecting that to go up because we're aware that Universal Credit has had a massive increase in applications."

That increase comes amid a surge in job losses and furloughs as the UK economy is impacted by coronavirus and the strict lockdown measures needed to control its spread.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, almost one million new claims for Universal Credit state benefit were made in the last two weeks alone.

Yet if anything, the Covid-19 crisis has just accelerated a trend of more and more people needing foodbanks that was already there to begin with.

Since 2009/10 foodbank usage among UK residents has risen from the tens of thousands to the millions.

The Trussell Trust is the largest food bank network in the UK, and it handed out around 41,000 food packs in 2009/10 compared to 1.6 million in 2018/19.

The same trend is true for Epsom and Ewell's Foodbank, Jonathan said, as he described how Universal Credit impacted foodbank usage in Epsom and Ewell:

"Last year we were already up 42 per cent on the year before, the year before that we were up 40 per cent.

"When people are on Universal Credit there are times when people struggle because it is quite basic. In a moment of crisis for example a car breaking down, our benefit system doesn't cover those sorts of eventualities," he pointed out.

The reason lies in a much-criticised element of the current Universal Credit system of benefits — that there is a five-week wait before claimants receive any money.

"The main flaw in the system I would say is that for the first five weeks you don't get anything at all," Jonathan said.

"You're on no money, how do you survive until then? You create a debt perhaps, but then you'll end up servicing your debt with Universal Credit and you'll never escape it."

With a surge in demand of use among residents in the borough, including those new to Universal Credit, has however been reflected in more residents hoping to help.

Despite the difficulties of social distancing, volunteer numbers are not a serious issue for Epsom and Ewell Foodbank — supplies are.

"We've had lots of volunteers and the challenge with social distancing is that I can only have a certain number of people in my place anyway.

"Our biggest challenge at the moment is physically accessing the food," Jonathan said.

While he praised donations from supermarkets and businesses including TK Maxx and Asda, their contributions were not proving enough to counter the lack of some essential goods on the shelves, to the extent that overall donations have dropped recently.

"Our donations are down, mainly because people cannot actually buy items at the supermarket.

"The two products we're lowest on is pasta sauce and rice pudding. With pasta sauce you're only allowed to buy two tins so are people going to donate one to us in that context?

"People are donating money and urging us to buy it but our biggest issue at the moment is accessing that food because it's not on the shelves at the supermarket. Our trouble is getting stock," he said.

"We've had huge amounts of donations of fruit, milk and products that turn over really fast.

"The items we most need are:

  • Pasta sauce
  • Long-life milk
  • Shower gel
  • Vegetables (not sweet corn)
  • Soap pump
  • Rice pudding
  • Sanitizer
  • Instant mash
  • Noodles
  • Powdered milk."

To donate or apply for support from Epsom and Ewell Foodbank on 020 8786 8221 or email foodbank@generation.org.uk