We talk to Manzoor Ali, founder of South Manchester's Barakah Food Aid
We caught up with Manzoor Ali, founder of South Manchester’s grassroots social enterprise Barakah Food Aid, around the time of the uproar over the government’s school dinner parcels. The picture circulated by Twitter user @Roadsidemum along with Marcus Rashford’s efforts throughout the pandemic thrust food poverty into the spotlight. But although exacerbated by COVID, the problem is far from new.
I feel like a failure. Eleven years I've done this. I've failed the people we're supposed to be helping.
While some seized the school dinner parcel furore as an opportunity to turn the spotlight onto their own charitable efforts, Manzoor calls Barakah Food Aid his 'worst-kept secret' saying, "Charity should always be kept low-key. Not using the misery of others to push yourself up any ladders."
Manzoor was moved to action around the time of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. Like many, he noticed an increase in homelessness on Manchester’s streets and wanted to do more than hand out the odd supermarket sandwich. He and his family began distributing food parcels to the homeless every Thursday.
“We were doing this from our own pocket: cooking some curry, rice, popping in a bottle of water, some fruit, a sweet treat," Manzoor explains, "We thought, let's go to them. Treat them with respect as you'd treat your own family. If you helped somebody and they turned out to be someone that you knew, never disclose it to anyone. There's nothing worse than being in a situation and other people knowing about it. It's demoralising.”
Putting the unity in community
While Manzoor was helping others, he experienced the bite of poverty himself and at one point almost lost his house. He and his wife set up a business selling curries from home. This helped them turn a corner as they continued to feed others - putting any tips they were given into the Food Aid fund.
“Someone suggested I set up a Facebook page for the business. So I did, but somebody was quite nasty about us saying ‘They must have a minging house. They probably don't even cook properly’ and other horrible comments.”
Ironically it was this nastiness that helped build the business. People responded to the mean comments by ordering food from them in solidarity.
“That's Chorlton in a nutshell,” says Manzoor, “People were like, ‘I went into their house, it wasn't ready but they sat me down and we watched a bit of telly while we waited. It was the best curry we’ve ever had'”
They never shared anything about Barakah Food Aid on their business page or vice versa but word soon got around.
“People were collecting food from our home and they'd see food parcels on the floor and ask, is this your curries going out? I couldn’t lie. Within 18 months of working it from home, we ended up in a shop on Barlow Moor Road. People started to jump on board and help. When we sold the business three years ago, one of the reasons was that we were so busy, I was no longer hands-on with Barakah Food Aid. It was impossible for me to do both.”
"People started to drop donations off at the shop and it crossed with my ethos of not using the charity as marketing for the business. I felt we were becoming what I didn't want to. So I sold the business and became an Uber taxi driver. I’m now able to do my work and if I have an emergency food parcel, I can turn Uber off, drop the parcel off and start working wherever I drop it.”
Fighting the stigma around food poverty
Manzoor’s personal experience of hardship has given him an acute understanding and empathy.
“It’s difficult to open up and to ask for help but it's such a relief when the troops come running. Maybe I had to go through all of this in order to do what we do.
“Poverty doesn't prejudice and neither should we. Marcus Rashford has been able to do amazing work because he himself experienced that poverty.”
Manzoor doesn't mince his words when it comes to the Tories.
“They don't represent us and they don't care about us. If I was the Prime Minister of this country, and I saw these awful numbers of food banks - which outnumber McDonald's restaurants in our country - I would bring these figures to the chambers and say to all MPs: ‘I am capping salaries and any expenses for food will stop with immediate effect.’ I, as Prime Minister, would take a 20% cut and that money would go into a fund. None of it would be reinstated until we hit our targets on food poverty.”
More foodbanks than McDonalds in the UK
“Why would I want to be part of a system I don't trust?" says Manzoor, "I’m aware of charities that toe the line. As soon as they’re getting funding, they stop speaking out for people because the minute they politicise anything, they might lose funding. We're here for the people and are looked after by the people. When I put a post out that we need food, we get inundated with parcels."
Are people sometimes sceptical about the fact that Barakah doesn’t have a registered charity number? On the contrary.
“If anything, people trust us more because they know we're not sat behind a computer chasing grants and funding. We haven't got an office. We don't have business cards or a website. If we have a couple of grand in the account, it lasts us a couple of months. Any money we get is used to purchase food and items for those in need. Barakah Food Aid has no running costs.”
If they can do that with nothing, imagine what they’d do if they were in charge of public funds.
Since Barakah Food Aid started over a decade ago, the situation has got worse year on year - especially since the advent of Universal Credit. There’s no love lost for Iain Duncan Smith.
“Him cheering in Parliament, fist in the air at the at the green light for Universal Credit with his gritted teeth,” Manzoor’s emotion is palpable, “I'll never forget that image. I felt sick. How can you have these rules are going to affect people's lives and you're punching the air? You awful, odious man.”
The steady decline has gone into overdrive during the pandemic.
“Prior to the first lockdown, we were doing maybe a dozen parcels in a week. Emergency referrals from the council. We went from that to 30 a day. We're small. The huge charities will probably do a thousand in a week. Because we were in lockdown, I had an army of volunteers.”
Did he have concerns about their safety?
“Yeah, I always made sure that they all took precautions: masks, gloves and sanitiser. Put the food at the door, step away, wait for it to be collected. Just wave and go. It was a sad time, but the strength and unity within the community was truly beautiful. It made me think: We are the power.”
Can we eradicate food poverty completely?
But Manzoor isn’t patting himself on the back.
“I feel like a failure. Eleven years I've done this. I've failed the people we're supposed to be helping. You should not be doing this for 11 years.’
“What we've seen here: mothers crying, the silence of kids. We need to stop pointing the finger at everyone else and take responsibility for the mess. We own it. Why? Because we didn't vote, or we voted the wrong way.
“When I deliver a food parcel. I feel embarrassed that I'm going back to my creature comforts. Ashamed that I'm not doing more for them.
“We can never pat anyone on the back because, for everyone we've helped, there's another we've missed. We’ll never eradicate poverty completely, let's be realistic, but we could bring it down, massively.
“We have the money. We spend millions on Her Royal Highness's house in painting and decorating. We're giving contracts of hundreds of millions to government friends and associates for distributing PPE that isn't even passing UK regulations. We're wasting billions on a test and trace system that doesn't work. They say we haven't got a magic money tree but when it hit the fan, this government - and I'll give them credit for it - released billions.”
What does Manzoor say to people like MP Ben Bradley who conflate food poverty with bad parenting or criminal activity?
“I'll give an example, pre-pandemic: A mother was on Universal Credit working part-time. One day, she was meant to go to her meeting at the DWP offices and she got a call from school - her child was poorly. She goes to get the child, does the right thing as a mum, gets to the appointment late. She gets sanctioned. Her benefits are then cut for three to four weeks. This is the harshness of the reality of the DWP. But they're only operating based on the policies of the government.
“Drugs and drink had nothing to do with it. Yes, there are people that that will do these kinds of things but with people that we've established have these issues, give them vouchers that can only be redeemed for food. If I was given the opportunity to speak to people with that view, I'd say to them, ‘Come with us. Say what you've just said to that mother or father to their face, and let them tell you their situation.’”
A legacy of foodbanks
“Social media is toxic. You get people, especially on Twitter, saying: 'If you can't afford to have kids, why have them?' But there are people who've had a good life - me included - everything's going well, you've had children, you’re loving life, having holidays and then it hits the fan. These people are saying that because they've not experienced it. They don't represent us. We need more real representation in Parliament and local councils.
“We shouldn’t want to leave a legacy of foodbanks. We're at a turning point. If we don't get it right now, our children will call us a failed generation.
“I want to thank everybody that has supported us over the years. Our neighbours, the community of Whalley Range, Chorlton, Stretford, South Manchester, the volunteers. A huge thank you to everyone that’s supported us whether that's a share, a like, everything from a penny to a pound, a tin of beans or a packet of pasta. We have not done this on our own.”
Combatting racism with kindness
Finally, Manzoor tells us about the time he met Tommy Robinson when he was running his campaign to become a member of the European Parliament. Manzoor went to Wythenshawe to join the church standing in solidarity against him.
“He came over to me with his camera and microphone. He tried to rile me a couple of times. I said, ‘Tommy, I'm not here to fight you.’
“I put my hand on his heart and said, 'Tommy, I wish I had your heart. You've got a lionheart. If I had your heart I would be leader of this country. This church congregation are standing here in fear of you. They've given me sanctuary. A Muslim guy - a brown guy with a beard. Who's the good guy and the bad guy here?' He started calling me bro, shook my hand, begged me to come back later. There was so much hate on that field that day but I didn't have an ounce of fear.
“I say to people that are racist towards me or my fellow Muslims: 'I will make sure you're fed and after you've eaten, if you want to go back to being racist, you can. But I will never stop feeding you.'”
“We've got a lot of work to do. Everybody's looking for someone to stand up and do it for us. If we can't find that person, we've got to do it ourselves haven't we?”
Where to turn if you need help
If you are struggling with food poverty and wondering where to turn, you can ask your NHS navigation team or support worker to refer you to Barakah Food Aid or you can call Barakah directly on 07506 527 523 for a chat.
If you want to support Barakah Food Aid, you can find them on Facebook.