Neighbourhood Bites aims to serve the homeless and members of the community who are in need of fellowship. Since it was founded by Tom Edwards in 2018 the organisation, which operates from St. John’s church hall in Bethnal Green, has seen a huge increase of guests. This is due to word spreading of the crucial work they do, as well as the swelling need for the services they provide.
Every Tuesday evening and Saturday lunchtime, a dedicated team of volunteers gather at St. John’s Church and help serve members of the community who are homeless and lonely. Guests come to Neighbourhood Bites for a number of reasons; if they are in need of a meal, or just after some companionship. Whatever their request is, their wish is met by Edwards, 29, and a group of helpers.
Originally started as a way to bring some joy to lonely members of the community, essentially a ‘big dinner party’ every Tuesday night, Neighbourhood Bites has evolved to the point where it now functions as a food bank. Tuesday night, the busiest of the days, can see up to fifty guests visit St. John’s between 5pm-8pm. Luckily, Edwards and his team are well equipped to handle the food side of things, as they are partnered up with City Harvest, a national charity who focus on obtaining and donating restaurant food waste to food banks.
‘We’re really lucky to have found such a welcoming and hospitable home in Bethnal Green,’ says Edwards, whose day job is teaching at Cardinal Pole secondary school in Homerton.
‘When we started in 2018, we were just making really basic sandwiches and serving tea and coffee in polystyrene cups. Now we have partnered up with City Harvest, there’s a whole variety of stuff we can do. St. John’s Church has also been amazing for us, they just let us have a place and do our thing.’
The popularity of Neighbourhood Bites is a testament, not only to the hardwork and dedication of its volunteers – they have over 90 people in a Whatsapp group chat to call upon – but also of the strength of the surrounding community.
‘We’ve had a lot of support from St. Margaret’s Cafe, Cafe Quarantacinque and the Gregg’s in Bethnal Green,’ continues Edwards. ‘I’ll cook a large spag bowl every week, but in all honesty I think our guests prefer the food we get in from other places!’
Neighbourhood Bites prides themselves on bringing in fresh fruit and vegetables too, which is welcomed by the refugees who visit them. ‘Because of the large number of people we have helping us to exist, we are lucky to be able to cater for a large variety of people and their different tastes.’
When Covid-19 struck early last year, the organisation’s primary objective of providing support and companionship was hampered. ‘It breaks our heart when we tell people that they have to leave after they’ve had their food,’ says Edwards. What marks Neighbourhood Bites out from other local food banks is their emphasis on helping the lonely.
‘A lot of our regular guests come to us because they just want to have someone to talk to. I asked one of them what the worst thing about the lockdown was, and they said “it’s no different to my normal life”, which is sad. People are always going to want human connection, particularly at times like these. Hopefully we can provide it.’
Edwards explains they have seen a large rise in guests since they began in 2018. ‘It’s down to homeless levels rising, as well as word spreading about us and our quality of food increasing.’ Indeed, statistics have shown that the number of people sleeping rough in London during lockdowns has increased by 33 per cent.
‘We’re not offering the solution to homelessness, or loneliness, we’re trying to provide a service where people can come to us and hopefully find some companionship and have some tasty food.’ says Edwards.
Although Covid-19 has prevented them from performing their ‘social duties’ to the standard they aim for, Neighbourhood Bites still accomplish great things with the food they provide. With the third lockdown recently announced and a long winter ahead, Edwards’ team’s role within the community is more important now than ever. ‘We are just going to keep going and trying to help people as much as we can through this period, then when things slowly go back to normal we can start providing the social aspect more than we’ve been able to recently.’
As the need to help the homeless community in Bethnal Green increases, so will the need for helpers and donators to the cause. Visitors to the Neighbourhood Bites website will be urged to ‘have one less pint this weekend’ and donate a small amount in order to ensure that the organisation can continue bringing positivity to the community.
Within the next few months, Edwards’ hope is that Neighbourhood Bites will become a registered charity; another step which will help them maintain the crucial work they do week after week.
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