By William J. Furney
On Wednesday afternoon this week as I was shopping in a supermarket in Gran Canaria, my basket filling up with quinoa, avocado oil and avocados, spelt crackers, tofu, seitan, coconut milk and other delicious and real food to support health and wellbeing, a man approached me holding out a bag of frozen food and asked if I would buy it for him.
My instinct was to recoil from such an unhealthy, overprocessed product — what was it: onion rings, squid?
The local had moments earlier said “hola” to me as I walked around the store, and I had returned the greeting and thought how friendly the shoppers were.
But he had followed me across the aisles and then extended the product he had wanted me to purchase for him.
“It’s only three euros,” he implored.
“Don’t you have three euros?” I asked the respectable and casually dressed man who was wearing a blue face mask around his neck.
He didn’t answer; he just handed the package to me, and then followed me to the checkout. And then a mild “gracias” when I handed him back the paid-for product.
Being in a supermarket and surrounded by food and not having a penny to buy anything and having to rely on the kindness of shoppers is a strange circumstance for anyone to find themselves in — and especially in a well-to-do part of the world such as this: a minuscule, volcanic island off the northwest coast of Africa whose main income, now coronavirus-depleted, is well-heeled tourists from Europe.
And yet there it was, and perhaps not all that shocking given the torrent of tumultuous times we are living through: a cascade of health, economic and personal disasters that is plunging many people to desperate depths in order to survive.
Earlier this month I made a birthday-present donation on behalf of a family member to a food bank in the affluent English town of Eastbourne, not far across the channel from France. Looks can indeed be deceiving, because according to one source, more than 7,000 children — nearly 20% of youngsters in the town of 107,000 people — are living in poverty.
And with the novel coronavirus, things are only getting far worse. I asked Jan Mitchell of the Eastbourne Food Bank, where I had made the donation, if her charitable organisation had been experiencing an uptick in people coming for food since the UK semi-lockdown came into place a couple of months ago. She said demand was up about fivefold. Stories abound of middle-class families who previously gave money to food banks now having to rely on them, as people lose their jobs and the economy tanks.
“To give you an idea,” said Jan, “in a typical week, prior to lockdown, we fed 130-150 homes in Eastbourne.” “Last week, (it was) 500 and this week, 531.”
She said that in April, not long after the UK lockdown started, on March 23 (albeit a diluted one, compared to the strict measures enacted in such countries as Italy, France and Spain, which have lower coronavirus death tolls than Britain — the second-most Covid-afflicted place in the world, after the United States, with over 34,500 deaths to date: so perhaps a failed policy, then, Boris), workers at the charity delivered 1,850 boxes of food, enough, she said, to feed 2,500 people.
“We are only two weeks into May but already equally as busy,” Jan told me. She said donations that people usually make in supermarkets, when they’re shopping, “have fallen considerably”, but that the country’s largest supermarket, Tesco, donates two pallets of food every week. Even so, the food bank is in dire need of tinned meat, fish and vegetables, she said, and the additional work she and her colleagues do to source additional food items is “a mammoth, exhaustive and exhausting operation.”
In a bright spot, with more funds coming in, the charity, whose roots lie in the Christian faith, has been able to hire a second vehicle that it uses to collect food given daily from supermarkets around the town.
Many people in Eastbourne, it seems, wants to help those who have little or nothing to eat, and Jan said: “the community at large, from businesses to individuals to the local churches, are keen to be more involved.”
If there’s one thing about this rolling coronavirus emergency, it’s that it has brought communities all over together, and at the same time the pathogen that’s believed to have emerged in a live animal market in China late last year — go vegan, guys, and we won’t have to deal with this again — is decimating communities. From Italy to Africa, India and beyond, there are heartbreaking and tragic tales of people going to their kitchen cupboards to find food but staring at empty shelves as their stomachs growl.
Let’s hope that when this health crisis is over and our economies start to recover, and people who have lost their jobs find new ones, we will all find space in our hearts to look out for those in all kinds of need, including desolate people forlornly wandering supermarket aisles.
- Title photograph, of a residential area in southern Gran Canaria, where lockdown measures are gradually being lifted, shows people at a cafe on Wednesday afternoon, and is by William J. Furney.