• Heidi Thompson
  • 18 October 2013

Food for thought

I was always someone who ‘thought’ about volunteering, rather than actually ‘doing it’.  When, earlier this year, Workplace Law offered all employees one day’s paid leave per year for a worthy cause, it gave me the push I needed. I knew straight away where I wanted to use ‘my time’.

The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity that launches foodbanks to provide three days’ nutritionally balanced non-perishable food to people in crisis.  There are now over 400 UK foodbanks, with two to three launching every week. The Trussell Trust estimates that there would need to be 750-1,000 foodbanks to provide for people in crisis across the UK. Thousands of people are facing hunger today in towns with no foodbanks.  They receive no government funding and rely entirely on the generosity of the public, businesses and charitable trusts.

One of these foodbanks is in Grantham where I live.  I didn’t have much prior knowledge other than some information I had read in local and national press and, like many others, I had offered a few tins when the collection was in my local supermarket. 

My first step was to meet with Brian Hanbury, the foodbank Coordinator for Grantham.  He is a fantastic guy who works tirelessly, and after meeting him I realised just what a huge responsibility it was.  To give perspective on this cause the latest stats show that over 350,000 people received three days’ emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks between April and September 2013, which is triple the numbers helped in the same period last year. Over 120,000 were children. 

Chris Mould, Executive Chairman of The Trussell Trust, says:

“We said in April that the increasing numbers of people turning to foodbanks should be a wake-up call to the nation, but there has been no policy response and the situation is getting worse. The level of food poverty in the UK is not acceptable. It’s scandalous and it is causing deep distress to thousands of people. The time has come for an official and in depth inquiry into the causes of food poverty and the consequent rise in the usage of foodbanks. As a nation we need to accept that something is wrong and that we need to act now to stop UK hunger getting worse.”

There is a lot of misconception around Foodbanks – many people have commented to me that the benefit system, which has received much bad press recently, surely provides adequate resource and therefore they cannot comprehend the need for such an organisation.  I have also encountered rather less gracious comments such as ‘they should stop smoking / they should cancel their Sky TV’, which leads me to the point – just who do we think ‘they’ are? 

I don’t share these views, but I did wonder who needs to use a foodbank, and how it works in practice.  So with those thoughts in mind I arranged my first volunteering stint at Grantham’s Foodbank, full of questions and reservations about what I would find.

My first impression of Grantham Foodbank is how clean and homely the volunteers have made it. With no resources they have created a lovely setting – very much the feel of a living room with homemade cakes on the tables and the kettle always on the boil.  This is an environment that aims to show respect to anyone that comes through the door – to provide dignity and, along with the food, human kindness – perhaps something many won’t have encountered for some time. 

The reasons why people come to Foodbanks varies of course.  We know that rising living costs puts many people in a very vulnerable position – one small change can plunge them from survival to poverty.  For those that may have had savings these have become eroded over time and are now non-existent. Hikes in energy prices also force people to choose between eating and heating this winter.  We must remember that those affected also include children, many of whom, through no fault of their own, are now forced to attend school with little or no breakfast and without the comfort of a hot meal when they get home. 

Brian showed me pictures that some of the affected children from a local school had drawn of food they hoped to eat that night – this wasn’t based on whether they fancied a McDonalds or pizza but just the hope of some nice cooked food – something surely every child deserves.

The changes to welfare reforms have also had a major impact.  I have been alarmed by some of the news in the press – we of course are often just shown those high profile cases of people on benefits receiving thousands.  The reality is not like this.  One thing that surprised me was that if there is any change to your benefit – perhaps you move house or there is an error, then your benefits automatically stop.  This can take several weeks to resolve and in the meantime people simply have no money and no way to feed themselves or their families.

Equally, the benefits system does not cope well with crisis. If you were to find yourself out of work and not lucky enough to have family or savings to support you, it would be some time before you could receive any financial assistance.  With the economy as it has been, many such cases have arisen.

It is humbling to see the level of food donations from ordinary people like you.  The need is continual and there is always a risk that they will diminish and then where will that leave those in dire need?

I have been guilty of this myself – giving the odd can and then of course not doing it again for several weeks or months.  I have to confess I have also not always given much thought to what I have given – somewhat reminiscent of harvest festivals gone by when you dig out that random tin at the back of your cupboard – after all food is food, isn’t it?   There is truth in that of course – but it is not unreasonable to want to have hot food and nice things to eat – it isn’t such a luxury.  I have heard views that if you are hungry you will eat anything – you probably would, but are we not all worth more than that?   Living on soup and dry bread for days on end is not going to help people to move on successfully in their lives.

During my time volunteering I met many such people that had fallen on impossible times due to losing their jobs, relationship breakdowns, benefit issues and many more.  In order to get their food they would have needed to collect a voucher from a frontline care professional such as a doctor, social worker, CAB or schools liaison officer, then queue to get the food and talk to strangers about their situation.  For many, it is a humiliating experience – the Foodbanks work hard to make it bearable, but in reality when they arrive people are at their lowest ebb, no doubt wondering how it had led to this.  Some people I met also asked for food that didn’t need to be cooked as they had no such facilities, again making their situation worse. 

All of the stories I heard whilst volunteering stick out to me, but I wanted to share one here.

A man in his mid-50s.  He told me his story that he had worked all his life, 20 years in the Army.  Three years earlier his wife (who is younger than him) had had a baby.  His wife became unwell and suffered with a serious mental illness including acrophobia, and other physical ailments.  As a result he had to become his wife’s full time carer as well as looking after his daughter who is now three.  Financially they had received some benefits, it was tough, they had to sell their car but they managed.  Now with the recent benefit changes he and his wife had both been told to get work.  Whilst he agreed he could, he worries that he cannot leave his wife and getting her to the job centre is costly (due to transport) and almost impossible with her condition.  They can appeal against this and it seems likely that due to her condition they will succeed.  However, the benefit system being as it is means that in the meantime they will receive no money. This is a man who wants to work but is caring for his wife and young daughter full time; a family that I felt had been severely let down.  They had gone from surviving to poverty and suddenly unable to feed themselves.  The man was a lovely guy and clearly bewildered that after working all his life he was suddenly let down by the Government in his hour of need.

It is important to remember that the foodbanks are there to support – but they are not about keeping people where they are.  The Trussell Trust model aims to help people break out of poverty rather than create dependency on a foodbank. As such they provide food for three days only and in principle for no more than three times consecutively without further investigation. 

Food isn’t a luxury, it is a basic human right, and physical need. No one, young or old, should be expected to function day to day without food.  We should all continue to help, but we should not need foodbanks; rather the Government (who discuss this continually during Parliament) must take action now.

My experience of the foodbank was truly eye opening, and I do intend to continue to support where I can. I would encourage anyone reading this to find their local Foodbank – there is a very good chance there will be one near you.  Any help you give really does change lives and whilst the Government continues to ‘discuss it’, let us take action and make the ‘Big Society’ more than just a Government soundbite!

For more information on foodbanks visit: