Voices from a front-line food bank

Guest blog by Simeon Elliott, voluntary administrative assistant at the Vale Community Centre Food Bank

We are a small independent food bank based in a community centre serving two social housing estates and an area of private housing; one of 842 independent food banks operating across the UK outside of the Trussell Trust, and part of the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership Emergency Food Network and the Independent Food Aid Network.

The impact of coronavirus and the lock-down on us has been colossal and immediate.

sim from vale food bankWe had to find the food to meet a three-fold increase in users (mostly self-referrals) in three weeks as a result of job losses, reductions in income and school closures (where children accessed free meals). Our FareShare delivery of surplus food was no longer enough; we had to buy food, by seeking donations and grants. We previously had NO funding for the food bank, as the 50p donations from users covered our FareShare costs. Before the emergency 20-30 people collected food on a Friday; last Friday, we delivered to 69 households for 127 people (85 adults and 42 children). In the first three weeks we purchased an additional £600+, then £800+, then £1500+ of food to meet the need for a basic food bag for every person for a week.

We had to set up a shopping scheme for those who had the money to buy food but couldn’t go out to buy it and didn’t have friends, family or carers to do it for them.

We had to recruit 30 additional volunteers to cater for the deliveries and home shopping support.

Can you do me a food parcel; I lost my jobs, and a have 37p to last me to my first universal credit payment on the 30th [on the 10th].

food parcel recipient

We had to adapt our referrals process: many people who had lost their jobs or had immediate dramatic reductions in incomes would have found it hard to access us through the former referral system, as they have rarely had any contact with a potential referrer to certify that they were in food need. People in hunger, especially when universal credit takes weeks to start, need food immediately.

I’ve never been to a Food Bank but I haven’t eaten in three days; could I get some food now.

food parcel recipient

vale food bankWe had to set up new communication systems, as we no longer have face to face contact with our users, and many do not have access to the internet. We now use letter-box leaflet drops; phone-calls; group text messaging, and weekly parcel news-sheets, in order to check in with users; see what they didn’t want in their parcels to avoid food waste; check whether they needed things like nappies and sanitary products; deliver public health messages; and supply contact information for advice and support agencies on benefits, debt, mental health, social isolation and domestic violence, all the associated crises that attend the medical and food crises.

 

We did all this with no paid staff (although we have the help of a wonderful Community Development Worker allocated to us part-time from the Trust for Developing Communities, along with other community organisations); no previous funding; and no permanent food bank base. We used to set up our food bank on one day a week in our small, multi-purpose community centre – initially the whole community centre had became a food store and packing base all week; but we have just had to temporarily relocate to our bigger sister community centre up the road, as our community centre had insufficient space for us to store and pack food for 130 people, and accommodate all the volunteers we need to pack the parcels, and maintain safe social distancing.

My boy has a dairy allergy so the vegan milk was absolutely perfect and the nesquick – I have happy kids. Thank you so much.

food parcel recipient

Provisional lessons from this crisis, in my opinion:

–        There should be no need for food banks in the first place, they exist because as a country we have not addressed the systemic causes of poverty; so inevitably food bank users will be those who are most impacted by a crisis like this.

–        This crisis is not a leveller and it is not just a medical and food supply crisis. It is also an economic, social and psychological crisis that will inevitably affect the most needy and vulnerable more, and for a long time

–        In the past many food banks worked according to some some basic assumptions e.g. people should access food banks only through time-limited referrals from professional referrers; receiving a 3-day food bag is sufficient; and FareShare deliveries would provide most of the stock required and only limited top-up purchases would be be required alongside individual donations. These assumptions do not work in this crisis; we have had to accept self-referral otherwise people would go hungry; three days food is not enough now when some people are in absolute food poverty and receive nothing else apart from what they get from a food bank, and whilst FareShare is great, we have had had to purchase huge amounts of additional food to provide for even the basic food needs of a hugely increased number of users (although there is some evidence to suggest that the previous assumptions didn’t necessarily address food poverty before, see A survey of food banks operating independently of The Trussell Trust food bank network. (2019) Rachel Loopstra, et al).

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