‘I started a charity in my garage. It now feeds 20,000 people a week’

Naomi Russell tells the JC about the creation of Food Bank Aid


Naomi Russell, founder of Food Bank Aid (Photo: Rosa Doherty)

It was two days before Seder night in April 2020 and 64-year-old Naomi Russell was watching the news. It was an item on food poverty that moved her to action. “I could just see cars and cars of people lining up for help, and they were nice cars. I was really taken aback by it. It was a striking image of all these people that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as experiencing poverty.

“I knew it was two days before Pesach and people would be getting rid of all their chametz and I wondered if there was any way we could give this food to people who needed it.”

Russell, who lives in north London near Hampstead Heath, texted her synagogue group offering to collect and distribute peoples chametz. Within 10 minutes, she was getting scores of messages.

Soon her driveway had become a collection point for bags of groceries and her garage had turned into a storeroom. “It was Covid and there was a sort of wartime spirit then; everyone wanted to help.”

Today, her driveway drop-off has grown “just a little bit,” Russell says humbly from her charity’s first official premises. She registered Food Bank Aid officially in 2021 and the distribution centre in Finchley, which was kindly gifted to them by property developer Regal London, serves over 30 foodbanks across London.

The “hub”, as she and other volunteers refer to it, supplies food, toiletries and household goods to food banks from Watford to Tottenham. They help 20,000 people a week, including 5,000 children, and are run nearly entirely on the help of up to 300 volunteers.

“You have to see it to understand the magic of it” Russell tells the JC as a flurry of volunteers get to work behind her, packing and organising the food that gets sent out to those in need.

This year, the charity is facing its biggest challenge yet with a fundraising target of £1.25 million. On 25 and 26 February, they will be holding a 36-hour fundraiser.

“The cost of living crisis is really affecting people.” says Russell, who attends Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue.

The distribution centre means foodbanks only get the items they want and need and it saves them the storage problems they would otherwise have.

Tony Singer, 77, from Mill Hill, has been volunteering with the charity for two-and-a-half years.

He gives up three mornings a week, having first got involved after donating food to Russell’s initial driveway collection project. “I help get the orders out, packing and general shlepping. I started my life in a warehouse and I’ve ended up in one,” he says proudly.

Singer, who began his working life in a textile company, loves the fact he has “come full circle. The people here are just fantastic and it is an amazing organisation. It is unlike anything I’ve been involved with before. You get all walks of life here and it’s incredible.”

That is part of the magic for Russell, who is passionate about the way the charity gives people a window into different communities and faiths.

“I think it is important people know that Jews are giving a lot to this, but it’s not just the Jewish community, and that is also what is great about it. We’re all united by the same thing and that is helping other people, and that’s a great leveller for people,” she says.

Sasha Cohen lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north-west London, and has been working with the charity since its inception.

“I’ve seen it evolve a lot,” she says. “I used to work in events and during Covid, that stopped. I had everyone at home, and I needed to find something else to do. I was bored and now I do at least a day-and-a-half a week here.”

Cohen, who is busy organising everyone else, says: “We have a really good team of people. I’ve got to know everyone. We’re a group and that is part of what is so lovely.”

Each morning, volunteer drivers turn up to take the stock that food banks have indicated they need the most.

One of the things Russell is passionate about is providing food for the many different communities’ that individual food banks serve.

“We buy food that people would normally cook at home and that is something that’s very important to me.” 

“I don’t want to just give a tin of beans to someone from a community who wouldn’t normally eat that.”

She shows off the stack of spices from around the world. “It has taught me so much,” she says excitedly.“I never knew for example that the Brazilian community drink hot chocolate like we might drink coffee or tea. We were getting loads of requests for hot chocolate and I didn’t know why until it was explained.”

For Russell, Food Bank Aid is not just a distribution centre tasked with feeding those in need.

“We do that,” she says, “But we do so much more. It is a family and what the volunteers get out of it is what keeps us going. They need it just as much as those in need do.”

Food Bank Aid is holding a 36-hour fundraiser on 25 and 26 February. For more information or to donate, click here

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