As It Happens

Why this London food bank stayed open during the Queen's funeral

British food bank director Michelle Dornelly says she wasn't about to let hungry people in her community wait all weekend to get much needed groceries.

Many food banks closed for the official holiday, but not the Hackney Community Food Hub

A woman in a gray sweater and a black and yellow head wrap looks over several bins of supplies.
Michelle Dornelly is the CEO and founder for Children with Voices and the Hackney Community Food Hub. (Submitted by Michelle Dornelly)

Michelle Dornelly says she wasn't about to let hungry people in her community wait all weekend to get much needed groceries.

Dornelly is the CEO and founder of Children with Voices and the Hackney Community Food Hub, a mobile London food bank that operates out of several community spaces. The hub remained open on Monday despite a national holiday for the Queen's funeral.

"It's extremely sad, you know, and our thoughts do go with the Queen and her family and ... others that have also lost their loved ones this month," Dornelly told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"But the Queen supported what we did … so I know that she would be extremely happy that we continue to feed the vulnerable, needy and the underprivileged today. So for me, it was something that we just had to do."

Many food banks close for holiday

A number of food banks across the U.K. shut their doors on Monday to observe the holiday — a decision that drew criticism from some residents in the country that's facing a cost of living crisis.

Dornelly says the Hackney Community Food Hub got about half as many clients as it usually does on Monday because people largely expected it to be closed.

But those who used the service, she says, were extremely grateful.

"We did a delivery today and one of our volunteers got feedback from a really lovely … gentleman who was so happy to receive the food. He didn't think we were coming, seeing that so many other services had shut down today," Dornelly said.

"It was amazing. That is why we do it."

A procession on horseback moves along a long stretch road toward the camera as massive crowds of people gather on either side.
Viewed from the Cambridge Gate, the procession following the coffin of Queen Elizabeth, aboard the state hearse, travels up the Long Walk in Windsor on Monday, making its final journey to Windsor Castle after the state funeral service of Queen Elizabeth II. (Carl Recine/AFP/Getty Images)

The Queen's funeral brought much of the country to a standstill on Monday. Students took the day off school. A number of hospital appointments and funerals were postponed. And many private businesses, including supermarkets, closed up.

The food bank closures, in particular, drew a mixed response from Britons online. Some defended volunteers who want to take a day off to mourn the Queen. Others decried shutting down necessary services at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. 

Energy bills for the average U.K. households have doubled since the spring. Food costs are also spiking. Milk prices are up more than 33 per cent year over year, while fruit juice and canned vegetables have risen by more than 15 per cent.

A woman in an apron and head wrap smiles brightly as she tosses salad in a bowl.
Dornelly says the people who used the food bank's services on Monday were extremely grateful it was open. (Submitted by Michelle Dornelly)

Hackney Community Food Hub only operates from Monday through Thursday, and Dornelly says she didn't want to leave people waiting the long weekend to restock.

She's critical of the decision to shut down so many services. With schools closed, she said, struggling families have extra mouths to feed. Many parents were forced to lose a day of work or find child-care services, she added.

What's more, she worries about the food waste that comes with shuttered food banks and grocery stories.

"We do respect and, you know, people do honour the Queen, and it is sad that she has passed. But … I don't think that they kind of, like, thought this through," she said.

'Society is becoming dependent'

Trussell Trust, a nonprofit that supports a nationwide network of food banks in the U.K., says it doesn't know how many of its members closed on Monday, but noted that it is "standard practice for them to be closed on bank holidays when the majority of referral organizations are also closed."

The organization says each food bank made its own decision about whether to close.

"Sadly, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis have led to increased need at food banks as more people struggle to afford the essentials such as food. The reaction regarding the possibility that food banks may be shut over a bank holiday illustrates that society is becoming dependent on charitable, volunteer-run organizations to help people to survive, and that is not right," Trussell Trust said in an emailed statement attributed to its chief executive, Emma Revie.

"Food banks were set up to provide short-term support to people in an emergency, they are not a lasting solution to hunger and poverty, and they should not need to exist."

Revie says the only way to tackle hunger in the U.K. "is for the government to make a long-term commitment to support people on the lowest incomes and establish a social security system that ensures everyone can afford the essentials in life, like food." 

Dornelly called on people to be more generous in these dire times.

"Volunteers need more support, more mental health support. We need money. Volunteers are volunteering, but they also need to pay their bills. They're also struggling with the cost of living," she said.

"There's deprivation everywhere. And I just wish that people would just open their eyes and just be a little bit more compassionate."

With files from CBC News. Interview with Michelle Dornelly produced by Devin Nguyen.