Photo courtesy of Bow Foodbank.
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Dealing with the cost of living crisis: what help is there and how to get it

Thanks to Tower Hamlets’ roots in philanthropy, social reform and innovation, help is varied and inventive, from longstanding charitable behemoths to pioneering social enterprises.

The cost of living crisis has impacted all aspects of life. From smaller everyday necessities like travel and weekly shops, to larger feats such as housing prices and fuel bills. According to the Office for National Statistics, 88% of adults in Great Britain reported an increase in their cost of living in May 2022. The Independent predicts that two million Brits will be plunged into fuel poverty by the end of the year

While Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest London boroughs – 69% of local neighbourhoods in Tower Hamlets are in the 10% most deprived in England and 56% of children live in low-income households – it also has a history of social movements and reformers who have set standards for the whole country. 

From the rising of the Suffragette movement in the East End courtesy of Sylvia Pankhurst, to Dr Thomas John Barnardo, a philanthropist who lived in Bow and helped thousands of East End children and, more recently, the invention of the early-years Sure Start scheme, we have a track record of coming together to help those in need when times are tough. 

Yet again, our philanthropic institutions are coming to the fore. In part two of our cost of living investigation, we spoke to local organisations who have made a move to fight against the rise and support locals. 

The first noticeable change many have seen over the last few months has been an unmanageable rise in food and fuel bills. Pioneering community centre Bromley by Bow Centre (BBBC) led by Rob Trimble, who won a British Empire Medal for services to the local community, has stepped up to the challenge. They are offering multiple programmes, advice services, and initiatives to support locals in the current cost of living crisis, perfect for taking that first step into finding solutions. 

The benefits, housing, and debt service offers free advice to Tower Hamlets residents. BBBC’s energy advice service offers confidential advice for those struggling to pay their gas, electricity or water bills. Another session they hold is the Empower service, where you can learn tips and tricks to use less energy at home and save money on your bills. 

BBBC has put together a handy list of ways to reduce energy wastage, to lower the price of monthly energy bills. These include; not overfilling the kettle, washing clothes on a cooler wash, and double-checking that appliances have not been left on. Using low-energy light bulbs, showering instead of bathing, and batch cooking to reduce food waste. Small changes like these can amount to a big difference. 

Bow foodbank volunteers load van with supplies
Photo courtesy of Bow Foodbank.

But even with all these initiatives, the rise in cost of living has resulted in a steady increase in those visiting food banks. The centre also has a number of schemes such as fuel vouchers, and houses the Bow foodbank, which runs on Monday mornings. Christina Ball, director of Bow Foodbank says ‘we are seeing more working-class people, who are employed and earning a steady income, but simply can’t afford their weekly shop’. The stigma around food banks has often been associated with those on the breadline, but in the current climate, it is students and working-class individuals who frequent the food bank.

Ball says that this rise has led to an increase in volunteers at the food bank, with 90% being local residents who simply want to help others. Bow Foodbank provides food support to locals, and refers their clients straight to the Bromley by Bow Centre, who call back within 48 hours of referral for advice and help. Tower Hamlets houses a number of other foodbanks including Bethnal Green food bank,  St Luke’s foodbank and the Salvation Army. For a list of foodbanks, take a look at our previous cost of living article.

Food inflation is also a major issue. A loaf of sliced bread in 2000 cost 53p. Now, you’ll have to fork out £1.18 for the same product.

If you’re beginning to go into debt, you can turn to Debt Free London, one of a group of charities led by Toynbee Hall. This historic community centre near Brick Lane was set-up in 1882 and continues to work to alleviate poverty in the East End. The debt service is funded by the Money and Pensions Service and offers free advice either over the phone, through video chat, on Whatsapp or on webchat. They cover all kinds of debt including rent, council tax, utility bills, credit cards, and loans. 

Women have experienced a greater impact on employment due to the pandemic than men, particularly those from BAME backgrounds, leaving them more vulnerable to poverty.  Women’s Inclusive (WIT) is a volunteer-led organisation setup by Bow local Samir Jafa. Since its opening, she has received an MBE in recognition of her work to represent women from black and ethnic minority communities in Tower Hamlets. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 WIT has set up a community kitchen and foodbank to help the most vulnerable.

WIT offers one-off crisis support for access to food, healthcare, and specialist support, as well as support plans for individuals to help set goals and action plans. WIT also offers mentoring programmes, advice and guidance for support on welfare benefits, housing, money and debt. Advice can be offered in person or over the phone in English and Somali.

The team works in partnership with housing association Tower Hamlets Homes as a dedicated resource for Somali residents. If you are of a minority background and are seeking more personal support in a language better suited to you, WIT can help.

Alongside the work of our local charitable behemoths, we have also seen the rise of smaller pioneering initiatives and social enterprises. Library of Things, inspired by the lending libraries of Europe and Canada, offers a  large online store for ‘borrowing’ items, from hoovers to sewing machines or pasta makers. You can be charged daily or weekly, and the purpose is to reduce the cost of buying an item to only use it a handful of times, as well as landfill waste. 

Another byproduct of the rise in the cost of living, is the increasing awareness of the amount of food wastage we produce. Spending more on food shops and throwing away food that has gone off or cannot be used is almost physically painful these days.

Sunny Jar Eco Hub is a social enterprise on a mission to teach everyone how easy it is to be sustainable and eco-friendly, on a budget. The social enterprise started three years ago, after two friends Maud Barrett and Linda Tai moved to Tower Hamlets, and noticed the worry they and their neighbours had over litter and the cost of things in the borough.

Their organisation hosts a number of workshops including Zero Waste Cooking with Sunny Jar, clothes swaps, Zero Waste Cooking: Bread for Beginners and many more. Maud says ‘The biggest way to save money is to reduce food wastage’, something the Sunny Jar’s workshops aim to show. ‘A large loaf of bread is about £5 these days, with our workshop, we show you how to make bread at just 80p a loaf, so you can only make as much as you really need.’

Their other workshops have included Pickling and Fermenting, where you are shown how to preserve food to reduce waste. As well as Vegan Spread classes, where you’re taught how to make cheese and pesto, which are completely vegan and cheaper than shop bought.

Crate of cans for supplies at Bow Foodbank.
Photo courtesy of Bow Foodbank.

But for many, simply eating a balanced diet with the rise in supermarket produce is becoming an impossible challenge. Bag of Tastes can help. The organisation is designed to address food poverty and help people overcome the struggle. They offer long-term, ongoing support to show students that cooking healthy can be done affordably. 

Bag of Tastes offers residents a free, delivered, ingredients bag and course materials, containing the food for 7 meals (3 recipes) and all materials required to participate in a 2-week course. During this time, you can learn cheap and healthy recipes for you, your friends and family.

Tower Hamlets council will also be announcing a number of plans for relief packages later in July, including the rollout of a holiday food programme for children entitled to free school meals by the summer break. Mayor Lutfur Rahman also hopes to keep universal free school meals for primary school children and aims to extend them to children in secondary schools.

This is a very uncertain time for many. With bills, food supplies, travel and housing costs soaring, it can feel very overwhelming. Luckily, we know how to cope in a crisis in the East End.  

Share your experiences

We want to hear how you have been affected by this crisis. Your experiences help to advise us on how our readers are being impacted, and what stories you want to hear from us. So if you have felt the reverberations of this crisis, we want to hear from you.

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If you enjoyed this article, read our article on Local shops and initiatives that champion sustainable living.

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